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Curtis Wilkie untangles the tale of Zeus

I spent much of the weekend reading Curtis Wilkie’s “The Fall of the House of Zeus.” Time to read has become a rare commodity, so the four-day weekend created by Christmas presented a golden opportunity. I picked the right book.

Wilkie has done a masterful job of chronicling the downfall of one of the country’s most prominent trial lawyers, Dickie Scruggs.

Wilkie is a Delta boy, born in Greenville and raised by a single mother who taught school. His father was an alcoholic who died when Wilkie was young.

Wilkie was a student at Ole Miss when violence erupted in the fall of 1962 over James Meredith becoming the first black to attend the school, one of the landmark events of the civil rights era. He witnessed history at a young age and decided to be among those writing history’s first draft as journalists.

Wilkie graduated from Ole Miss in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and headed back to the Delta to work as a reporter for the Clarksdale Press-Register. Though I continued to call Little Rock home during my four years with the Delta Regional Authority, the DRA headquarters was in Clarksdale and I spent dozens of nights there. I generally would work late, buy a Press-Register from the box in front of the federal building while walking to my car and then take the newspaper with me to read while having dinner at Rest Haven, Abe’s, Ramon’s or the Ranchero.

Many of that Delta city’s residents remember Wilkie’s stint there from 1963-69 as integration and other aspects of the civil rights movement played out across the South.

After receiving a fellowship from the American Political Science Association, Wilkie headed to Washington in 1969 to work on Capitol Hill for Sen. Walter Mondale of Minnesota and Rep. John Brademas of Indiana. In 1971, he returned to newspaper work in Wilmington, Del.

Wilkie was hired by the Boston Globe in 1975 and would stay at the newspaper for a quarter of a century. He covered seven presidential campaigns for the newspaper and was the Globe’s White House correspondent from 1977-82. He also served as the newspaper’s Washington bureau chief.

The Globe later established a bureau in the Middle East, and Wilkie worked out of Jerusalem from 1984-87. He returned South in 1993 to open a Southern bureau for the newspaper in New Orleans. Wilkie teamed up with the late Jim McDougal to write “Arkansas Mischief: Birth of a National Scandal,” which was released in 1998.

In 2001, Wilkie’s second book was published, “Dixie: A Personal Odyssey Through Events That Shaped the Modern South.”

After leaving the newspaper business, Wilkie was a journalism professor at LSU in 2003 and was appointed to an endowed chair in journalism at Ole Miss in 2004. In 2007, he became the first Overby Fellow at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics at Ole Miss.

As more and more successful Ole Miss graduates came back to Oxford to live, Wilkie found that he often crossed paths with Scruggs, who had relocated his law practice from Pascagoula to Oxford. Wilkie readily admits that he considers Scruggs a friend. But in more than 300 pages of investigative journalism, he turns over all the stones of this tangled affair, which goes to the heart of the Mississippi political, legal and business communities.

Having spent much of my time in Mississippi for four years and knowing many of the book’s characters, I found it fascinating. Yet anyone who loves reading about Southern politics will enjoy this book. Mississippi, you see, is much like Arkansas — a small state where personal connections run deep.

During Bill Clinton’s eight years as president, national reporters would parachute into Arkansas and be amazed at how connected everyone is. A state of fewer than 3 million people and the interpersonal relationships that engenders was something many of them could never fully grasp.

Here’s one example of how Mississippi is also a small state: I was reading a newspaper column about the book. The column was written by Bill Minor, who has covered Mississippi politics since 1947 and for many years was the Jackson correspondent for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans. Bill Minor’s son, former Biloxi attorney Paul Minor, is a figure in Wilkie’s book. Paul Minor, now in federal prison, also was one of the state’s most successful lawyers until he was convicted in 2007 along with two Harrison County judges on numerous corruption charges. Paul Minor is serving the longest sentence of the three, 11 years.

We’ll let Bill Minor summarize has Scruggs became one of the richest lawyers in the country: “Scruggs amassed his multimillion-dollar empire by becoming a master at class action lawsuits against big corporate adversaries and assembling a legal team to do practically all the courtroom work while he devised overall strategies aimed at forcing a settlement.

“His first big coup came in the 1980s by representing hundreds of shipyard workers who contracted asbestosis at Pascagoula’s Ingalls Shipbuilding. Then, in the 1990s, he became nationally recognized as ‘King of Torts’ and subject of a movie. Acting as special counsel for state Attorney General Mike Moore, Scruggs forced previously impenetrable Big Tobacco into a multibillion-dollar settlement on grounds their product had cost states millions in Medicaid health care payments.”

Scruggs later would receive a five-year federal prison sentence after pleading guilty to a ham-handed attempt to bribe a state circuit judge. His son, Zach, also would receive federal prison time and serve his sentence at Forrest City.

It’s a classic tale of greed run amuck. Scruggs had far more money than he would ever need to live comfortably. Wilkie, in fact, laments the fact that so many of that poor state’s best and brightest have entered the legal profession through the years, often choosing to sue and countersue each other rather than becoming entrepreneurs and creating jobs.

With a bright son who is a senior in high school and says he eventually wants to attend law school, it certainly gave me food for thought while reading the book.

It was fitting that Wilkie’s tome was released Oct. 19 at Square Books, that great independent bookstore on the Oxford square just down the street from where Scruggs’ law firm had its offices.

“Richard ‘Dickie’ Scruggs liked his friends close and his enemies closer,” Patsy Brumfield of the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal wrote in a review earlier this year. “His wife, Diane, lived in dread that they would be his undoing. She was right. … Few of the chief actors in this book come out looking very well. They range from aggressively calculating or naively stupid to ruthless power lovers. Its main character, Dickie Scruggs, rises from the world of poor boy from a broken home to the pinnacle of his profession and its riches. But along the way he acquires or befriends associates who help pave his road to ruin.”

She says Mississippi’s “incestuous and close-knit political, legal and social circles, especially the old network of the late Sen. Jim Eastland and the University of Mississippi’s Sigma Nu fraternity, prove to be breeding grounds for his troubles.”

When asked by Brumfield what surprised him the most in researching the book, Wilkie said: “The scope of the story. What I originally thought might be a book about the investigation and a highly charged trial turned into more of a tale of Mississippi politics, how Dick Scruggs became ensnared in a network of influence peddlers, movers and shakers and fixers who have been doing business in this state for decades.”

Brumfield asked about the difficulty of writing about people one knows well. Wilkie answered: “Almost any journalist is going to be confronted with writing unfavorable stories about friends. I’ve had to do it a number of times. Sometimes you may lose friends altogether or bruise friendships. But usually, if the writer is handling the story as accurately and fairly as possible, the relationship survives. In this case, Dick Scruggs and I continue to correspond. I believe he agreed to talk with me — under no conditions — because he felt if a fuller account of the story were told the public would have a better understanding of how he ended up in the mess he did.”

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