FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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.

 

 

 

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

December 05, 2016
Bill Martin
Stalingrad at Standing Rock?
Mark A. Lause
Recounting a Presidential Election: the Backstory
Mel Goodman
Mad Dog Mattis and Trump’s “Seven Days in May”
Matthew Hannah
Standing Rock and the Ideology of Oppressors: Conversations with a Morton County Commissioner
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
#NoDAPL Scores Major Victory: No Final Permit For Pipeline
Fran Shor
The End of the Indispensable Nation
Michael Yates
Vietnam: the War That Won’t Go Away
Robert Hunziker
Huge Antarctica Glacier in Serious Trouble
John Steppling
Screen Life
David Macaray
Trump vs. America’s Labor Unions
Yoav Litvin
Break Free and Lead, or Resign: a Letter to Bernie Sanders
Norman Pollack
Taiwan: A Pustule on International Politics
Nick Pemberton
Make America Late Again
Kevin Martin
Nuclear Weapons Modernization: a New Nuclear Arms Race? Who Voted for it? Who Will Benefit from It?
David Mattson
3% is not Enough: Towards Restoring Grizzly Bears
Howard Lisnoff
The Person Who Deciphered the Order to Shoot at Kent State
Michael Uhl
Notes on a Trip to Cuba
Weekend Edition
December 02, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
The Coming War on China
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: The CIA’s Plots to Kill Castro
Paul Street
The Iron Heel at Home: Force Matters
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
Timberg’s Tale: Washington Post Reporter Spreads Blacklist of Independent Journalist Sites
Andrew Levine
Must We Now Rethink the Hillary Question? Absolutely, Not
Joshua Frank
CounterPunch as Russian Propagandists: the Washington Post’s Shallow Smear
David Rosen
The Return of HUAC?
Rob Urie
Race and Class in Trump’s America
Patrick Cockburn
Why Everything You’ve Read About Syria and Iraq Could be Wrong
Caroline Hurley
Anatomy of a Nationalist
Ayesha Khan
A Muslim Woman’s Reflections on Trump’s Misogyny
Michael Hudson – Steve Keen
Rebel Economists on the Historical Path to a Global Recovery
Russell Mokhiber
Sanders Single Payer and Death by Democrat
Roger Harris
The Triumph of Trump and the Specter of Fascism
Steve Horn
Donald Trump’s Swamp: Meet Ten Potential Energy and Climate Cabinet Picks and the Pickers
Louis Proyect
Deepening Contradictions: Identity Politics and Steelworkers
Ralph Nader
Trump and His Betraying Makeover
Stephen Kimber
The Media’s Abysmal Coverage of Castro’s Death
Dan Bacher
WSPA: The West’s Most Powerful Corporate Lobbying Group
Nile Bowie
Will Trump backpedal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership?
Ron Ridenour
Fidel’s Death Brings Forth Great and Sad Memories
Missy Comley Beattie
By Invitation Only
Fred Gardner
Sword of Damocles: Pot Partisans Fear Trump’s DOJ
Renee Parsons
Obama and Propornot
Dean Baker
Cash and Carrier: Trump and Pence Put on a Show
Jack Rasmus
Taming Trump: From Faux Left to Faux Right Populism
Ron Jacobs
Selling Racism—A Lesson From Pretoria
Julian Vigo
The Hijos of Buenos Aires:  When Identity is Political
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail