Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1857
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...
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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 extremely controversial decisions regarding due process for criminal defendants under the Bill of Rights. Pollack quotes Warren after his retirement from the Supreme Court as saying that interrogation methods now ruled illegal were common when he was a district attorney. It was perhaps this knowledge that caused Warren to recognize a need for strict procedures to protect criminal defendants.
While district attorney of Alameda County, Warren was active in Republican politics and ran successfully for the office of Attorney General. Soon his political ties and activities extended outside California. He was a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1928 and 1932, and in 1936, he was chairman of the California delegation. Meanwhile, he was establishing a reputation as an outstanding Attorney General, and in 1940, he was elected president of the National Association of Attorneys General. Following his service as California Attorney General, he was elected Governor in 1942 and reelected for two additional terms. The fact that Governor Warren won both the Democratic and Republican primaries in his race for Governor in 1946 attests to his success and popularity. Being such a strong Governor in the large state of California inevitably made him an important political figure on the national scene. He was temporary chairman and keynote speaker at the 1944 Republican Convention, although he refused to be the vice-presidential candidate.
Although Warren had rejected second place on the ballot with Thomas Dewey in 1944, he was Dewey’s vice-presidential running mate in 1948. Not only was the outlook better for the Republicans that year, but Warren, who had some presidential aspirations, also understood that if he ever expected to be the party’s nominee for president, he could not refuse the vice-presidential spot in 1948. As the 1952 National Convention approached, Dwight Eisenhower and Robert Taft were the front-runners for the Republican nomination. Warren again headed the California delegation and hoped a deadlock would open the way for his nomination. However, when such a deadlock did not occur, he swung his support to Eisenhower and campaigned for him.
Pollack indicates that although he campaigned for Eisenhower, Warren was aware of differences in their political ideas. Nevertheless, when he decided not to run for a fourth term as Governor of California, he informed Eisenhower and his aide Herbert Brownell of his decision. Pollack suggests Warren’s future depended upon a good position in the Eisenhower Administration such as Attorney General or Supreme Court Justice. Thus, when Eisenhower informed Warren that he was appointing Brownell Attorney General, he also told him that he planned to offer him the first available vacancy on the Supreme Court. At the time, there was speculation that Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter would soon resign.
There had been conjecture about the role Richard Nixon played in Earl Warren’s elevation to the Supreme Court. It has been suggested that it was to Nixon’s political advantage to get Warren on the Court in order to remove him from his own path to the presidency. Pollack relies upon the authority of Justice William O. Douglas for his information of the visit of Vice-President Nixon and Senate Majority Leader William F. Knowland to President Eisenhower on behalf of Warren’s appointment to the Supreme Court. Among other reasons, they argued that the appointment would remove Warren as an obstacle to Eisenhower’s renomination in 1956. Yet the series of events leading to the appointment, which are carefully detailed, indicate that Warren and Eisenhower agreed that Warren’s position in the party and his campaign efforts on Eisenhower’s behalf entitled him to a high-level appointment. Therefore, it was natural that Eisenhower promised Warren to appoint him to the first vacancy on the Supreme Court.
As it turned out, the first vacancy did not occur as a result of Frankfurter’s resignation but because of the death of Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson. Pollack recounts the details of Eisenhower’s deliberations, which included the possibility of elevating an Associate Justice to the position of Chief Justice and appointing Warren Associate Justice. Warren, however, insisted that he had been promised the first vacancy. Eisenhower sent Brownell to California to meet with Warren, and even though there is a difference of opinion about the length of the meeting, Pollack reports that Warren held out for Chief Justice. Despite this, Pollack is reluctant to present Warren as actively seeking the appointment and prefers to imply that it simply came to him.
The political background and skills which led to Warren’s appointment to the Court also explain much of his behavior as Chief Justice. Pollack correctly stresses that Warren was not an outstanding legal scholar and that explanations for his achievements on the Court must be sought elsewhere. For example, the amazing unanimity of the decision in the controversial school desegregation case of Brown v. Board of Education attests to his political skill and leadership ability. However, it was not the school desegregation case that Warren considered the most important decision of the Court during his tenure, but the reapportionment cases. Again, a politician who had run for office many times and had served three terms as Governor would appreciate the importance of the apportionment of representation. So great was Warren’s faith in fair representation that he felt the problems of racial discrimination would have been avoided if a “one man, one vote” system had been in effect.
Chief Justice Earl Warren had a great impact on his times, not only because of the Supreme Court decisions but also because of his leadership of the commission to investigate the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This assignment did not come automatically to a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, but was one which President Lyndon Johnson prevailed upon Warren to take in addition to his other duties. No doubt Johnson was motivated by a desire to have a person of the highest prestige head the commission and thereby give credibility to the report. Pollack recounts the criticisms of the handling of the investigation. The most important were the failure to examine the FBI and CIA files and the refusal to allow other members of the commission to examine the pictures and X rays of Kennedy after he was shot. The commission was also criticized for its less than thorough interrogation of Marina Oswald. Pollack concludes that, despite the weaknesses of some procedures of the commission, the determination that only Lee Harvey Oswald was involved in the assassination has not been successfully refuted.
Although Pollack presents a reliable and factual account of Earl Warren’s life, his book falls short of depicting a judge who changed America. He does not adequately evaluate Warren’s contributions or analyze the impact he had upon his times.