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:
June 29, 2016
Diana Johnstone
European Unification Divides Europeans: How Forcing People Together Tears Them Apart
Andrew Smolski
To My Less-Evilism Haters: A Rejoinder to Halle and Chomsky
Jeffrey St. Clair
Noam Chomsky, John Halle and a Confederacy of Lampreys: a Note on Lesser Evil Voting
David Rosen
Birth-Control Wars: Two Centuries of Struggle
Sheldon Richman
Brexit: What Kind of Dependence Now?
Yves Engler
“Canadian” Corporate Capitalism
Lawrence Davidson
Return to the Gilded Age: Paul Ryan’s Deregulated Dystopia
Priti Gulati Cox
All That Glitters is Feardom: Whatever Happens, Don’t Blame Jill Stein
Franklin Lamb
About the Accusation that Syrian and Russian Troops are Looting Palmyra
Binoy Kampmark
Texas, Abortion and the US Supreme Court
Anhvinh Doanvo
Justice Thomas’s Abortion Dissent Tolerates Discrimination
Victor Grossman
Brexit Pro and Con: the View From Germany
Manuel E. Yepe
Brazil: the Southern Giant Will Have to Fight
Rivera Sun
The Nonviolent History of American Independence
Adjoa Agyeiwaa
Is Western Aid Destroying Nigeria’s Future?
Jesse Jackson
What Clinton Should Learn From Brexit
Mel Gurtov
Is Brexit the End of the World?
June 28, 2016
Jonathan Cook
The Neoliberal Prison: Brexit Hysteria and the Liberal Mind
Paul Street
Bernie, Bakken, and Electoral Delusion: Letting Rich Guys Ruin Iowa and the World
Anthony DiMaggio
Fatally Flawed: the Bi-Partisan Travesty of American Health Care Reform
Mike King
The “Free State of Jones” in Trump’s America: Freedom Beyond White Imagination
Antonis Vradis
Stop Shedding Tears for the EU Monster: Brexit, the View From the Peloponnese
Omar Kassem
The End of the Atlantic Project: Slamming the Brakes on the Neoliberal Order
Binoy Kampmark
Brexit and the Neoliberal Revolt Against Jeremy Corbyn
Doug Johnson Hatlem
Alabama Democratic Primary Proves New York Times’ Nate Cohn Wrong about Exit Polling
Ruth Hopkins
Save Bear Butte: Mecca of the Lakota
Celestino Gusmao
Time to End Impunity for Suharto’’s Crimes in Indonesia and Timor-Leste
Thomas Knapp
SCOTUS: Amply Serving Law Enforcement’s Interests versus Society’s
Manuel E. Yepe
Capitalism is the Opposite of Democracy
Winslow Myers
Up Against the Wall
Chris Ernesto
Bernie’s “Political Revolution” = Vote for Clinton and the Neocons
Stephanie Van Hook
The Time for Silence is Over
Ajamu Nangwaya
Toronto’s Bathhouse Raids: Racialized, Queer Solidarity and Police Violence
June 27, 2016
Robin Hahnel
Brexit: Establishment Freak Out
James Bradley
Omar’s Motive
Gregory Wilpert – Michael Hudson
How Western Military Interventions Shaped the Brexit Vote
Leonard Peltier
41 Years Since Jumping Bull (But 500 Years of Trauma)
Rev. William Alberts
Orlando: the Latest Victim of Radicalizing American Imperialism
Patrick Cockburn
Brexiteers Have Much in Common With Arab Spring Protesters
Franklin Lamb
How 100 Syrians, 200 Russians and 11 Dogs Out-Witted ISIS and Saved Palmyra
John Grant
Omar Mateen: The Answers are All Around Us
Dean Baker
In the Wake of Brexit Will the EU Finally Turn Away From Austerity?
Ralph Nader
The IRS and the Self-Minimization of Congressman Jason Chaffetz
Johan Galtung
Goodbye UK, Goodbye Great Britain: What Next?
Martha Pskowski
Detained in Dilley: Deportation and Asylum in Texas
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail