The biography of a public figure is valuable if it explains and fairly evaluates the person’s contributions and if it provides insight about the path to achievement. In addition, a well-written biography can be entertaining reading. Jack Harrison Pollack gives a detailed, colorless account of the events and achievements of Earl Warren but does not make an evaluation of his contributions. Although his treatment is generally sympathetic, it is fair to the extent that facts are accurately presented and some criticisms given. Pollack looks for forces in Warren’s life which might explain his career but does not reach a satisfactory answer. Instead, he conveys a sense of puzzlement about the great impact that Warren had upon his time. Pollack suggests that it was Warren’s extraordinary commitment to the common virtues that explain his impact.
Certainly, there was nothing unique in Warren’s early life that foreshadowed the impact he would have in his adult life. Pollack attempts briefly to develop the theme of “Viking genes” to explain Warren’s venturesome spirit, but he soon seems to realize that this theory will not do. To find factors that provide some understanding of the man, the best that can be done is to examine the family background in which Warren grew to maturity. Ordinary virtues were a predominant feature of Warren’s childhood; his family environment was marked by love, mutual respect, close companionship, and unity. Much of the unity was provided by the parents’ concern for the nurturing of their children. Warren’s father took special care to impress upon his son the deprivation of poverty and to devise a plan which would enable him to get an education.
Having grown up in this kind of home, it is not surprising that Earl Warren’s own wife and children would be the center of his life. Pollack gives the impression that Warren, although he did not marry until he was thirty-four, gave no thought to such matters until he met and married, in 1925, the widow Nina Palmquist Meyers, his lifelong companion. While Pollack stresses the importance of Warren’s family, he portrays only a campaign-poster picture of the ideal family and does not give the reader any sense of the quality or depth of the family relationship. Pollack is doubtless on sound ground when he relates Warren’s personal experiences as a father of three daughters to the difficulty he had leading the Supreme Court in the obscenity cases to a position that would stand the test of time, yet later Justices have fared no better in dealing with this issue.
Another contributing factor to Warren’s career was the great pleasure he took from his association with others. It was during his years at the University of California at Berkeley that the genial, self-confident, companionable Earl Warren began to emerge. Soon after his graduation from law school, he became president of the Young Lawyers Club and naturally developed an interest in politics. He made contacts which led to his appointment as deputy city attorney of Oakland. From there, he moved to the district attorney’s office and became district attorney of Alameda County at thirty-four.
As district attorney, Warren made a reputation as a hard-working, effective prosecutor. Between 1927 and 1930, he was prosecuting corruption in other law-enforcement agencies, and a special target was the sheriff of Alameda County. Warren was frustrated because witnesses would not testify before the grand jury either because they were afraid or were bribed. In an effort to create pressure on the witnesses from the public, he released information that the grand jury had received to the local paper. Although this act violated a basic principle that proceedings before a grand jury are secret, Warren narrowly interpreted the state statute and took the position that the law stated the grand jury could not release testimony but that it did not say anything about the district attorney. This action clearly violated accepted practice, and Pollack reports that Warren was not proud of this episode. Another case of District Attorney Warren’s which had irregularities involved the murder of the chief engineer of the SS Point Lobos. One of these irregularities was the apparent holding of the accused overnight for questioning without legal counsel—a procedure which was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court when Warren was Chief Justice.
These incidents may explain, at least in part, the direction in which Chief Justice Warren took the Supreme Court in a series of...
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