The son of a department store floorwalker who lost his job during the Depression, Edward Bennett Williams arrived at Washington, D.C.'s Georgetown Law School in 1941 with $12 in his pocket and a specific agenda in his mind: to become rich, powerful and famous.
He succeeded stupendously on all counts. Eager for the publicity that high-profile cases could bring, Williams represented the gangsters and gamblers whom mainline litigators shunned. At his law firm he married the boss' pretty granddaughter. He worked harder, longer and smarter than anyone else around. Within 10 years the poor Irish boy from Hartford, Conn., had achieved fame as Sen. Joe McCarthy's mouthpiece.
He was just warming up. For the next 30 years, the infamous, the wealthy and the powerful all turned to Williams for help: Jimmy Hoffa, Adam Clayton Powell, financier Robert Vesco, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, CIA chief Richard Helms, and Robert Stroud—the Bird Man of Alcatraz—among others. In Washington, EBW became the man to see.
A master debater who learned his legalistic reasoning from the Jesuits, Williams never had a moral problem working both sides of the street. "I defend my clients against legal guilt," he was fond of saying. "Moral justice I leave to the majestic vengeance of God."
Not only his clients benefited from his labors. Williams's formidable arguments often reshaped law and resulted in Supreme Court decisions limiting government wiretapping and police powers of search and seizure.
When Williams died of cancer in 1988 at age 68—the one battle he did not win—everyone from head waiters to Supreme Court justices attended his funeral. The Washington Redskins and their fans mourned too. Though he owned only between five percent and 15 percent of the franchise, Williams had struggled to desegregate the team by signing halfback and later star receiver Bobby Mitchell in 1963 and had revived what was then an abysmal team by hiring first Vince Lombardi and then George Allen as head coach.
Evan Thomas, Washington bureau chief of Newsweek, has masterfully portrayed this complex and vigorous man, from the grimness of the Depression to the wackiness of New York in the '50s, where Williams cavorted with the good-time girls and the boy at Toots Short's. His book is a powerful look at the man and his times. (Simon & Schuster, $27.50)