Of Law and Lowlife : THE MAN TO SEE: Edward Bennett Williams; Legendary Trial Lawyer, Ultimate Insider, By Evan Thomas (Simon & Schuster: $28; 587 pp.)

Ivins is a contributing editor to Texas Monthly. Her latest book is "Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She?" (Random House)

Edward Bennett Williams, the great D.C. trial lawyer, was, by general consensus, one helluva guy. He was to trial lawyers in this country what Chuck Yaeger is to pilots. His biographer Evan Thomas has a problem, however, in that once you have put into cold print on a page "The man was a charmer," there it lies, deader than Caesar.

One assumes that a superb writer could convey the larger-than-life quality that made Williams groupies of many of America's smartest people. But Thomas seems to have all the personality of an affidavit. You can't fault his research, but you mournfully conclude that the stories in this book that make you chuckle would have made you roar with laughter had you only heard Williams himself tell them.

It's a rich tale: Williams was a serious Catholic boy from a dreary family in a dumpy town, who got through college and law school by the iron-butt method. The raffish side of his character came out when he drank, tempting one to make what are probably foolish generalizations about the Irish. From his early practice as a small-time criminal lawyer--he later became a big-time criminal lawyer--he developed a taste for the Runyonesque characters who inhabit the worlds of bookmaking and boxing. Anyone so prissy as to find that deplorable is not someone we want to drink beer with. And anyone who has ever been in a calling that offers exposure to the charms of low-life knows how seductive is the call of the outlaw, perhaps especially to a good Catholic boy.

Never having been troubled by the proposition that every sleazebag deserves a lawyer, I find nothing disconcerting in a roster of clients that ranged from Joe McCarthy to Sam Giancana to Jimmy Hoffa to John Connally. And it is a pleasure to read about the intensity and relish with which Williams went about getting these bozos off. Like all great lawyers, he put on a "game face" for trial; he went into war mode, quit drinking, worked around the clock, learned every nuance of the case--his old iron-butt method paid off time and again. Watching a great lawyer is like watching a great Shakespearean actor. I was there when Williams got John Connally, a man for whom I have no fondness, free of a bribery charge, and will always feel privileged that I got to watch Williams work.

Trial lawyers, like politicians, tend to have big egos, but Williams' only book was not a celebration of self, a la F. Lee Bailey and Louis Nizer; it is a book about principle and what it means to uphold the Constitution.

Thomas seems to think Williams fell away from the heroics of his middle career when he was establishing new constitutional precedents with almost every case. His later career was largely devoted to being a D.C. fixer, a power-broker and legal wheeler-dealer. It's a calling that can be defended--always provided you don't wind up fronting for BCCI. Mike Tigar, one of Williams' proteges, points out that Williams, with whom he disagreed violently about politics, let Tiger defend all manner of New Left bombers and martyrs on the firm's time and essentially on its money because Williams really did believe in the Constitution. Tiger points out that "fixing" cases instead of trying them is no end run around the system, since prosecutors are not a timid lot. Unless someone points out to them with factual, legal arguments just how they are going to get their butts kicked if they try a case, they are not apt to back down.

But Thomas does bring out some ethical questions the Bar Assn. probably should take a look at, including having one law firm represent several defendants in the same complex, white-collar conspiracy case. (Judges apparently now rule against this.)

Being fond of money in our time is so socially acceptable that most of us never even question it--and Williams was fond of money. At least he had fun with his gelt--bought first the Washington Redskins and then the Baltimore Orioles. Only comparison to a singularly unworldly lawyer, for example Federal Judge William Wayne Justice, also the subject of a new biography ("Justice: A Judicial Biography" by Frank Kemerer), makes Williams look a little dirty around the edges. But then, Justice is bucking for sainthood; anyone with that much integrity breaks the curve.

One gathers that Williams was one of those people who turn life from black-and-white into Technicolor for everyone around them with their zest and laughter. Thomas doesn't slight the downside--Williams had problems off and on with women, weight, depression and finally with cancer. One wishes only that the exuberance of his upside had been conveyed with more zing.

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