Defending the Despised
To detractors, Kunstler was an egotistical headline grabber, playing to the cameras decades before Court TV. But to admirers he was a zealous believer in justice. "He embraced society's pariahs while they were still society's pariahs," says Ron Kuby, his partner. Born to a family of doctors in 1919 in New York City and educated at Yale and Columbia Law School, Kunstler quickly settled into a small practice handling divorces and wills. "I was bored out of my skull," he said, so he followed his passion and headed south, defending freedom riders in the '60s and working as counsel to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The trial of the Chicago Seven, the motley band eventually cleared of conspiring to incite riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, brought Kunstler to national fame. "I had found my place in the world, I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life," he said afterward. That involved playing the gadfly. "The government is always the main enemy," he said. "I believe that government is evil. My role is always to fight it. Always be the burr under the saddle." A lover of the limelight, he played himself in several feature films, including The Paper and Malcolm X. Since his legal work was often pro bono, those performances—and frequent speaking engagements—helped support him. Kunstler, says Kuby, always stood up "for what was right, whether it was in the face of a mob or the government or public opinion."