Have Writ, Will Travel | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Have Writ, Will Travel 

Checking In With William Kunstler

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

Dapper, cheery, and tanned from a vacation in Mexico, William Kunstler is nobody's nostalgia figure. Seventeen years after the Chicago Seven trial he still keeps a high profile with the media and carries a busy caseload.

Earlier this year, the affable, 67-year-old Manhattan lawyer was on Donahue to talk about the Goetz case--he'd filed a $50 million damage suit on behalf of Darrell Cabey, the youth who was paralyzed from the waist down when Goetz opened fire. "The Goetz verdict signifies that it's open season on young blacks," Kunstler told me in his distinctive east coast basso profundo. "If I were black, I'd be afraid to walk the streets or ride the subway."

Kunstler also popped up recently on Nightline to comment on the percolating Moscow embassy spy probe. He represents Marine Sergeant Clayton Lonetree, who was accused of permitting a walk-through of the embassy by Russian intelligence agents after a Soviet secretary seduced him. "They want to hang Clayton," Kunstler said in Time, denouncing the investigation as a "colossal fraud." The most serious charges against Lonetree have since been dropped, but 13 counts remain, including espionage. Kunstler will defend Lonetree at his court-martial later this month.

Last week Kunstler was in town to stump for funds for the Center for Constitutional Rights, which he and three other attorneys started in the mid-1960s. The Manhattan-based center, which has about 20 staff attorneys, is a public-interest legal association somewhere to the left of the ACLU. It is currently involved in trying to recover millions of dollars from Ferdinand Marcos for the Aquino government and in fighting the deportation of Margaret Randall, a poet and photographer who has been a sharp critic of U.S. policies in Latin America. The center also emits a steady stream of amicus briefs in civil rights, First Amendment, and government-misconduct cases.

On hand with Kunstler were the center's vice president and chief fund-raiser, Manhattan lawyer Peter Weiss, and the civil rights lawyer Marilyn Clement, a director. But of course the real star of the Kunstler road show is Kunstler. He was on his way to an Evanston dinner for 24 friends of the center to do what he does best: make an impassioned plea for justice. "I usually talk about the Supreme Court and then go through the destruction of the Bill of Rights, one by one," he said.

Chicago has been very good to the center, Kunstler said, and a big reason is the five-months-long Chicago Seven trial. It catapulted him to national stature, and nearly 20 years later he still occupies that narrow realm with Melvin Belli, Alan Dershowitz, and a few others where law is lapped by show biz. Even in Manhattan, he turns heads. Women are particularly intrigued by him. "I think he's faaaabulous," squealed a 32-year-old entertainment lawyer I know.

But to many members of the bar, Kunstler is the epitome of shameless, contemptuous theatricality, of trying one's case in the press rather than in court. Of being a "media hog."

"I get that self-aggrandizing thing all the time," said Kunstler. "You don't know psychologically whether it isn't a little bit true. Most people like to be in the public eye, to see their names in the newspapers, to be on television. They like to get out of anonymity. I guess I'm as human as anybody else. But I hope it isn't only that. If it's only that, it's a sickness."

It is clear that Kunstler isn't getting rich off his cases. He once returned a $500,000 retainer to the Hearsts because Patty wasn't his kind of client. And the Cabey case, along with the others he does for the center, is pro bono. He takes an occasional criminal case "with great reluctance" to pay the rent. It does not hurt, he pointed out, that he has a working wife, 40-year-old attorney Margaret Ratner.

"It would be easy to say, 'I don't get any money, therefore I'm Sir Galahad.'" But he went along with Joan Baez, with whom he'd done a public radio talk show earlier in the morning. "They asked her if she did her protest work for herself. She said, 'I don't know, I probably did some of it for myself. I always liked attention as a child.' I thought that was honest. It's psychologically satisfying to be able to wield some influence."

He agrees that there's an undercurrent of cynicism in the attacks on him, a desire to prove that the 60s radicals were snot-nosed jerks. He will not speak against Jerry Rubin, the author of Do It!, who now organizes by-invitation-only networking parties and is trying to open a private club in Manhattan. Kunstler said Rubin had tears in his eyes after reporters savaged him at a news conference he gave with Kunstler, Hoffman, Bobby Seale, and David Dellinger in March to publicize the HBO movie Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago Eight. Kunstler came to Rubin's defense.

"People change. They move away," Kunstler told me. "You can't help that. But my feeling is that he did his thing, that he did his bit for the movement. So I said to the press, 'What have you done? What social consciousness have you exhibited?' But the establishment feeds on people like Bettina Aptheker, Jerry Rubin, Mario Savio, who have come back to the fold. They try to belittle what they did. 'Look, he's selling stocks now, so it was all a crock of shit.'"

For all his education at Yale and Columbia Law School, Kunstler can be equally blunt in the courtroom. He's been cited for contempt several times and an unsuccessful attempt was made to disbar him in 1974. In 1982 he was cited for contempt during the retrial of two Black Panthers accused of murdering a New York policeman. He told the judge, "This is essentially a publicity stunt. We're not going to participate."

That was nothing compared to the four-year contempt sentence Judge Julius Hoffman dished out at the end of the Conspiracy trial (it was reversed two years later). The trial of seven antiwar activists charged with conspiring to disrupt the 1968 Democratic Convention (the eighth charged, Bobby Seale, was soon separated from the trial) was fraught with theatricality. At one point Kunstler wept openly when defendant Dave Dellinger's daughter was dragged out of the courtroom by bailiffs. Looking back, Kunstler recalls "three big breaks" in the case.

"One was the choice of Julius Hoffman as the judge; the second was the exclusion of Charles Garry as Bobby Seale's counsel. That set the stage for Bobby"--that is, for Seale's repeated outbursts that he was being denied his constitutional right to represent himself. Hoffman ordered Seale bound and gagged, and later severed him from the trial.

Kunstler believes his third break was the presence of U.S. Attorney Thomas Foran and his assistant Richard Schultz as the prosecutors. He thinks the pair, now in private practice, were in over their heads.

"That case finished Foran's career in public life. Before the trial, they talked about running him for senator." After the trial, Foran made a speech at a high school that, according to Kunstler, showed "he knew his career was washed up." Foran's momentous remark: "We have lost our children to the freaking fag revolution."

"The funny thing about that," said Kunstler, "is that all through the trial the defendants were fucking everything in sight. Those guys were vociferously chauvinistic and heterosexual. They were screwing around like crazy."

Kunstler remembers his apartment on Wellington Street during the four months of the trial and the defense office on Clark Street. Attorneys and clients became soulmates. Leonard Weinglass, the junior defense attorney, bunked with Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman.

Kunstler recalled that his standard line in those days was "I love my clients." He doesn't think that his zeal has melted, but "I like my clients" is closer to the truth now, particularly about the clients he represents for money. "If I don't agree totally with their political ideologies, at least they're not antithetical to my own."

Along with Lonetree and Cabey, Kunstler has a slew of other cases going: representing "Atlanta child murderer" Wayne Williams in postconviction motions; defending several of 16 Puerto Rican nationalists accused of a Wells Fargo holdup in Hartford, Connecticut; even representing a Greenwich Village American Legion post that was raided by the FBI.

It's a hectic, erratic life but Kunstler doesn't seem to mind. "I'm a transient attorney. Have writ, will travel," he said. "I'm a scrounger." At that, Kunstler smiled. He knows when he's gotten off a good quote.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Stephanie B. Goldberg

Agenda Teaser

Music
Cortex Elastic
September 20
Music
Robert Glasper Trio Jazz Showcase
September 20

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories