Tales of the great EBW


THE MAN TO SEE. Edward Bennett Williams: Ultimate Insider, Legendary Trial Lawyer. By Evan Thomas. Simon & Schuster. 587 pages. $27.50.

FOR THOSE naive citizens who live outside the Capital Beltway, this excellent work is as much a revelation of how the Washington power structure works as it is a biography of one of the century's greatest defense lawyers. Edward Bennett Williams was indeed powerful and, relatively, his only real failure came when he ventured afield to buy the Baltimore Orioles.

His intention, confirmed by his son, was to steal the team for Washington: "Dad did intend to move, at first. But he came to love Baltimore." Thus did EBW avoid eternal infamy in Baltimore as a second Bob Irsay.

Evan Thomas, the Washington bureau chief of Newsweek, has turned out a remarkably honest portrait of Williams, admiring sometimes, but damning more often. And yet his sources include members of his subject's family, who speak with admirable candor about him. Except perhaps to his family, Williams was not a lovable person.

He was emotional, irascible, crude and overbearing. Once, in a rage, he flipped over a restaurant table on two of his guests, spattering them with food. Despite an occasional pose as a defender of civil rights, he seems more to have been without conviction.

His roster of infamous clients began with Sen. Joseph McCarthy and ended with Michael Milken, the junk-bond king. Ironically, he lost both cases, but these were exceptions. He also defended -- usually with success -- Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa (Williams detested him), Mafia don Frank Costello (Williams liked him), influence peddler Bobby Baker, Frank Sinatra, Armand Hammer, George Steinbrenner, Hugh Hefner, Texas Gov. John Connolly, fugitive industrialist Robert Vesco, CIA director Richard Helms, Lee Iacocca and the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

"People in deep trouble turned to Williams because of his reputation as a miracle worker who could make the guilty go free," Thomas points out. EBW also loved to take cases that promised plenty of money. "The fees further influenced Williams' enthusiasm for his client," Thomas notes. When he died in 1988, Williams was worth $100 million.

This was a long way from his origins as the only son of an inconsequential Irish-Catholic floorwalker in Hartford, Conn. Williams' fierce ambition seems to have been a reaction to the spiritless monotony of his father's life. With little paternal encouragement, he went to Holy Cross and to Georgetown Law School, from which he graduated at the top of his class. His impressive record steered him into a high-powered Washington law firm, and he was off to the races.

From the start Williams succeeded as a trial lawyer because he knew the law thoroughly and his pre-trial preparation was exhaustive. A boozer of borderline alcoholic tendencies (he drove while he was drunk, once through a garage door), he still had the self-discipline to quit drinking for a week or two before a trial. As his reputation spread he acquired the power that comes with wealth and success. His two best friends were Ben Bradlee, the legendary executive editor of the Washington Post and humor columnist Art Buchwald, but his other pals ranged from Lyndon Johnson to Muhammad Ali, from Clark Clifford to Burt Lancaster.

There were women, too. His shameless drinking engendered occasional infidelities, though his alcoholic state, if we are to believe one of his partners, usually rendered him impotent. His first wife, who died after 14 years of marriage, must have been tried to the utmost by his work schedule and his dalliances. His second wife, a member of his law firm, must have known what she was getting into; the marriage lasted.

Though Williams was known as a trial lawyer, in fact his astute knowledge of the law often got his clients free before there was a trial. His frequent martini sloshing with influential buddies at Duke Ziebert's restaurant didn't hurt, either. As he once told some of his young associates, "I'll tell you what a great trial lawyer is. He keeps his client from going to trial. He keeps his client from getting indicted in the first place. That's victory. Don't give me this crap about trial law."

Williams' disingenuousness and his adjustable principles are repeatedly noted. For example, in secretly promoting a 1980 presidential run by Gerald Ford (whom he liked) against Jimmy ** Carter (whom he hated), Williams interceded with Bradlee to have his name kept out of a story being prepared by a Post reporter.

It was probably the quest for power that drove Williams to buy into the Washington Redskins and later purchase the Orioles. Like Eli Jacobs, who bought the team after Williams' death, he loved owning the best box in the stadium and parceling out these few choice seats as a means of cultivating the high and mighty. But as an ex-Oriole executive told me recently, Williams believed the best defense was a good offense. So he loaded the Orioles with fading hitters. The great pitching staff deteriorated, and the team went with it.

The central moral question in Williams' life was the righteousness of defending murderers, crooks, mountebanks and charlatans who were the bulk of his clientele, and using not just the law but influence to free them. He was not ambivalent about this -- the accused had a right to the best counsel.

A self-righteous law student once asked Williams: "When you defend a man whom you feel is guilty and you get an acquittal, how do you feel?"

D8 "Wonderful," said the great Edward Bennett Williams.

Gwinn Owens is the retired editor of this page.

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