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Day 17

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Money, Power, Greed and Class in America

The Fall of the House of Zeus

by THOMAS NAYLOR

Former Boston Globe writer Curtis Wilkie’s new book The Fall of the House of Zeus (Crown 2010) is ostensibly about the rise and ruin of Dickie Scruggs, arguably the most powerful and most successful trial lawyer in America.  Scruggs, the brother-in-law of former U.S. Senate majority leader Trent Lott, made a fortune in Mississippi by bundling up mass tort lawsuits against Big Tobacco and the asbestos industries in much the same way Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs bundled up subprime mortgages.  In reality The Fall of the House of Zeus is a metaphor for America.

Just as the United States government is owned, operated, and controlled by Wall Street, Corporate America, the Pentagon, and the Israeli Lobby, so too is the government of Mississippi controlled by a handful of very powerful trial lawyers, corporate law firms, and their well-heeled clients.  It’s all about money, power, greed, and class. 

Dickie Scruggs made billions of dollars for his clients and hundreds of millions of dollars for himself by the clever manipulation of the legal system.  Described by Newsweek as a “latter-day Robin Hood,” Scruggs is highly intelligent, shrewd, charismatic, cunning, arrogant, generous, and ruthless beyond words.  He was portrayed in the movie The Insider as a “dapper aviator-lawyer” who owned two private jets, several homes, and a number of yachts.  He drove a Bentley automobile.  Today he finds himself in a federal prison in Ashland, Kentucky where he is serving seven and half years for having been convicted of bribing two Mississippi judges.  His son and junior law partner, Zach, spent fourteen months in federal prison for his role in the sordid affair.

Although he was identified as a liberal Democrat, Dickie Scruggs seemed to be connected to everyone of any political importance in the state.  To Scruggs it did not matter whether you were black or white, liberal or conservative, Democratic or Republican.  What did matter was whether you could be useful to him.  And if he thought that to be the case, use you he would.  But a racist he was not.

Scruggs was as comfortable with sleazy Republicans linked to Trent Lott as he was with smug, politically correct, liberal Democrats such as Governors William Winter, Ray Mabus, and Ronnie Musgrove, and Attorney General Mike Moore.  He contributed to all of their political campaigns and had no problem palling around with the mysterious Big Jim Eastland prot?g?, P.L. Blake.  Although the former firebrand racist senator died in 1986, his influence lives on in the hearts and minds of white racist Mississippi power brokers. 

The author of The Fall of the House of Zeus, Curtis Wilkie, is a superb writer.  There are few books which have ever motivated me to read every word written by the author.  Wilkie’s book is such a book.  His accounts of the bribery of backwoods judge Henry Lackey and the negotiations with the U.S. Attorney’s staff are riveting.

Having grown up in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1950s where I lived for the first twenty-one years of my life, I have long been a follower of the twists and turns of Mississippi politics.  But Curtiss Wilkie’s knowledge of Mississippi politics is without equal. An important subtle subtext of his book is that Mississippi politics, not unlike the politics of many other states, is corrupt to the core.  And Dickie Scruggs knew very well how to turn all of Mississippi’s legal shortcomings into his own personal gain.

One is struck by the prominent role which the University of Mississippi Law school played in the rise and fall of the Scruggs empire.  Scruggs, his son, and most of the other key players in the story were all graduates of the Ole Miss Law School.  Scruggs was a major contributor to the University and was closely associated with Ole Miss Chancellor Robert Khayat who was from Pascagoula, Mississippi, where Scruggs had grown up and launched his legal assault on the tobacco and asbestos industries.  The Chancellor even wrote a letter on official University of Mississippi letterhead to the federal judge presiding over the Scruggs case requesting leniency.  The judge was unamused.

The Ole Miss Law School is to Mississippi politics what the Harvard Law School is to Beltway politics in D.C. and the Harvard Business School is to Wall Street.  At both the Ole Miss and Harvard Law Schools, aspiring young politicians make the necessary political contacts and learn the proper legal tricks for manipulating the political system.  From the Harvard Business School those bound for Wall Street learn from the experts how to manipulate the financial system.  Whether at Ole Miss or Harvard the message from the students is loud and clear, “Teach me how to be a money making machine.”  Dickie Scruggs got exactly what he paid for at Ole Miss.

On the cover of his book Wilkie wrote, “Mississippi is emblematic of the modern south with its influx of new money and its rising professional class, including lawyers such as Scruggs, whose interests became inextricably entwined with state and national politics.”  If I had written this blurb for the book’s cover, I would have said, “Mississippi is emblematic of the American Empire which has not only lost its moral authority but is run by a single corrupt political party disguised as a two-party system.”

Unlike his Wall Street, Corporate America, and Pentagon colleagues, Dickie Scruggs operated out of Pascagoula, Mississippi, and he got caught.

For anyone interested in the confluence of money, power, and politics, The Fall of the House of Zeus is a must read.

Thomas H. Naylor is a professor emeritus of economics at Duke University. He is the co-author of Downsizing the U.S.A. and The Abandoned Generation: Rethinking Higher Education and co-founder of the Middlebury Institute.