Everyone is in love with Laurence Tribe's mind.
His students are awed by it.
"He's just an incredibly brilliant guy," gushes Linda Perle, who took Tribe's renowned constitutional law class at Harvard Law School about 10 years ago. "He really challenges you to think about things in a way you hadn't thought about them before."
His friends rave about it.
"Ask me if he has any intellectual weaknesses," prompts Robert Shrum, the celebrated Democratic political consultant, who met Tribe 23 years ago at an Ivy League debate competition. (Tribe was a judge from Harvard; he gave the young debater Shrum a high mark, and their friendship began.) "The answer is, yes. One. He has no sense of direction whatsoever."
His wife brags about it.
"When I first met him, he struck me as very intriguing. He had an unusual capacity to take the ordinary and do something different with it," says Carolyn Tribe. On their first date, instead of the "usual" routine of dinner first, and then a movie, "Larry just reversed the process -- we went to a movie first, then dinner, then to a coffee shop. It was very typical of him. He will reverse the pyramid and blow people's minds." These days, Tribe thinks up "hilariously ingenious bedtime stories to tell my daughter. He makes them all up. He really should tape them."
As for the man himself -- who at 43 has just authored his 13th book, about how the selection of Supreme Court justices has shaped American history, and who is frequently touted as a candidate for appointment to the Supreme Court by some future Democratic president -- well, he doesn't exactly hide his own infatuation with the Tribean cerebrum.
"What really is exciting to me, most of all, about both teaching and arguing, is the experience of getting an idea on my feet -- finally seeing something in a different light," he says. "I mean, quite often when I'm teaching a class, I will think of something, some slight twist, which is different from anything I've thought of before in the 16 years I've been teaching it . . .
"And I will think to myself: 'That's it! That's really the way of explaining why I think this is right and why I think it's right from several perspectives at once!' And when that happens, it's a truly wonderful feeling. And as long as that keeps happening, I think I won't be bored."
And for that, it seems, all of us should be grateful.
Ask Tribe anything about constitutional law -- he's the all-star liberal scholar on the subject -- and there's no holding him back; the words rumble and ramble forth unceasingly, gathering urgency and force like a buffalo stampede.
"Constitutional hypocrisy!" he says of Attorney General Edwin Meese's recent pronouncements about the Bill of Rights, abortion and affirmative action. "The most revealing thing about the Meese philosophy about strictly construing the Constitution and not applying the Bill of Rights to the states is how it applies in the world . . . He claims to have a direct pipeline to the Founding Fathers' original intent . . . Miraculously, the Meese Justice Department has a formula. The formula is: States' rights prevail over the rights of women, but States' rights and the options of local majorities go down the tubes when an interest group that seeks the protection of this Justice Department is white male workers! . . . Nothing could more clearly show how result-oriented and ultimately cynical and manipulative the references to the constitutional text and original intent are by the Meese Justice Department . . ."
Excited, his tone is forceful, self-assured, distinctly arrogant. But the most telling thing about Tribe's stifling self-confidence may be the fact that he did not always possess it.
Growing up, he was aware of himself mainly as "a fat little kid" who was decidedly unpopular with his contemporaries in the San Francisco public schools. Neither of his Russian immigrant parents had graduated high school, and they did not encourage him "to do athletic things of the kind that interest me now, and I guess I felt somewhat out of it as a result. I didn't think of myself as having some unusual talent or something. I felt somewhat different, but mostly inferior."
Yet his oversized intellect was evident from the beginning, and it became a refuge from what he calls the "seamless web" of obesity, alienation and self-doubt that entangled him well into his adult life.
At 16, he was painting award-winning pastels and taking correspondence courses in calculus; he graduated high school early and was awarded a full scholarship to Harvard. And there, surrounded by hundreds of other smart weirdos and pudgy boy geniuses, Tribe found a culture where pure intellect is worshiped with near-religious fervor.
He loved it -- so much that he could never bring himself to leave.
"He obviously feels very secure there," says a friend of Tribe's who also attended the college. "There's an almost womblike quality. That's why people stay there."
Tribe at first devoted himself to that most esoteric of intellectual pursuits, abstract, algebraic geometry. When he received his undergraduate degree in the field, he had completed all of the course work necessary for a doctorate, and so he entered the graduate program the next year to write a thesis and pick up his advanced degree.
But then -- abruptly, impulsively, and for reasons that remain unclear -- he changed his mind. He decided to become a lawyer.
Tribe says now that he made the switch because "it became clear to me that spending the rest of my life communing with a blackboard on problems that were esthetically very intriguing but just not very relevant to the world" would not be enough to satisfy him. "It seemed so disconnected from the other parts of my life that I cared about. I cared about politics, I cared about the distribution of power in society."
Two of his friends from Harvard, however, recall another reason behind his sudden about-face.
"Math is a field where it is possible to reach a level where you're very, very good, but where you can appreciate that others can do more," explains Pat Gudridge, a friend of Tribe's who now teaches law at the University of Miami. Gudridge says that Tribe -- for all his apparent brilliance and accomplishment in math -- nonetheless felt overawed by the work of Saul Kripke, a renowned mathematical philosopher who now teaches at Princeton and who was at one point a Harvard classmate of Tribe's.
Gudridge recalls Tribe's thinking at the time as being, "If I do this continue with math , I will always have to compare myself with a prodigy. In another field, my contributions will not always be compared to Kripke."
Another friend remembers Tribe calling his move into law "a confirmation of intellectual inferiority."
At the core of his life in the law are words.
A lot of them: big, precise, spoken in rapid succession. When Tribe talks, which by calling and disposition he does frequently, the result is an outpouring at once wild and careful -- wild because he rarely speaks a period, careful because he chooses his nouns and adjectives and adverbs with such deliberation that he sometimes appears to be in pain. His wife compares his command of language to that of a certain obscure German poet, who once wrote that his own astonishing facility with words had drained them entirely of meaning.
Consider Tribe's answer to a relatively innocuous question about how scholarship in law compares with scholarship in mathematics.
"If you see some wonderful connection between a multidimensional homotopy space -- in fact, my senior thesis in mathematics related to the equivalence between two different definitions under which a multidimensional, closed loop in space would be equivalent to another seemingly different multidimensional, closed loop in space -- when you see a connection like that, the attempt to translate it into ordinary conversation is bound to be futile, and that's part of what makes it frustrating. Connections that excite me in the law, even though they excite me in the same kind of way that structural connections excited me in mathematics, present the added challenge that if you can't translate them into something that people of a practical bent, without any esoteric familiarity with the details, can appreciate, you've failed . . ."
And so on.
Clearly, however, the words add up to something important. For if Tribe's goal in forsaking mathematics for the law was to extricate himself from the shadows of too-brilliant scholars such as Saul Kripke, the strategy has proven sound.
He holds the only chair in constitutional law at Harvard. Among the books he has written is the hefty and definitive "American Constitutional Law," which is lugged around by thousands of would-be barristers in law schools across the country. He testifies on constitutional issues before Congress. And he regularly argues important cases before the Supreme Court, where he has compiled a won-lost record that even Don Shula would envy. Earlier this month, representing the city of Berkeley, Calif., in Fisher v. Berkeley, he tried to convince the Brethren that municipal rent control does not violate the Sherman Antitrust Act.
Critics say that Tribe is victorious at the high court so frequently because he only agrees to argue cases he believes are sure winners. Burt Neuborne, who as legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union occasionally farms out Supreme Court arguments to Tribe, responds: "Tribe is an opportunist -- but correctly so, because there's no reason for him to waste his time on dead losers."
That is precisely what he did, however, in the tax fraud case against the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, in which Tribe argued on appeal that the Korean evangelist was a victim of religious persecution, not a crook. The Supreme Court, without dissent, refused even to hear Tribe's arguments, despite a high-powered campaign by civil rights activists who sought to convince the court that the case raised important constitutional issues. And again, in Rostker v. Goldberg, Tribe's zeal for the liberal cause ce'le bre drew him into a doomed crusade -- the attempt to find the all-male draft unconstitutional because it discriminated against women. Tribe was defeated, 6 to 3, at the high court.
All in all, however, Tribe is well pleased with his work. "I love it," he says. "I find it the most intellectually exciting and demanding environment that I could imagine." Arguing before the Supreme Court is the best of all. "You're trying hard to communicate and address the concerns of nine concrete human beings . . . You have a real feeling of whether you're getting across, and whether you've hit a spark, and whether you've put your finger on a concern that they have . . ."
If Tribe repeats himself, if he's redundant, if he says the same thing over and over, it's only because he's that excited about it all.
And for the first time in his life, the excitement is visible in his very appearance. The summer before last, Tribe lost about 60 pounds. "I used to always have a bad feeling about going to parties, being on television," he says. "It gives me a sense of a new lease on life. I feel considerably younger than I did at 33." Now, when he arrives in the classroom wearing one of his characteristic crew-neck sweaters, he is trim and vigorous, a page from the catalogue of some Harvard Square boutique. The little fat kid -- the insecure misfit -- has been banished.
The transformation of Larry Tribe into a world-class legal scholar and Supreme Court heavyweight has not progressed without controversy.
It used to be that when Tribe tried to imagine what it would be like to be a lawyer, he drew a blank. Certainly, he did not conceive of lawyers as many Americans do: men in three-piece suits who cloud their conference rooms with cigar smoke and cut deals for their rich clients; men given over to obfuscation and subterfuge; men largely without scruples.
No, says Tribe, "I thought of the law as a place where ideas could change the world . . . Law was the mobilization of ideas in society, and that appealed to me. I had no idea what the life style of lawyers might be." When he found out, he quickly decided that he wanted to teach, not practice.
Academic life can have a savagery all its own, of course, and in recent years, Harvard Law School has been the scene of a much-publicized war between conservative faculty and a group of left-leaning scholars known as the Critical Legal Studies movement -- complete with tactics that an assistant dean, Charles Nesson, once described as "vilification, name-calling, back-stabbing and character assassination." Tribe, however, has worked happily through it all.
Both sides, he says diplomatically, have "at times been less pluralistic and constructive than they should strive to be." But he thinks the controversy has been blown seriously out of proportion. "I haven't found it at all distracting myself," he claims.
And for a while, his attempt to remain above the real-world legal fray -- above the deal-making and power plays and tainted money -- was equally successful.
Then came Grendel's Den v. John P. Larkin.
Tribe got involved in the case, he says, because it turned on an important moral and constitutional issue: separation of church and state. Grendel's Den, a restaurant not far from the Harvard campus, was challenging a Massachusetts law that allowed churches to veto liquor licenses awarded to establishments within 500 feet of their premises. Tribe, a passionate liberal on most constitutional issues, agreed to represent Grendel's, which happened also to be a place where he occasionally liked to eat.
The case dragged on for a few years and finally landed before the Supreme Court. Tribe presented Grendel's argument. And he won, decisively.
Under a 1976 federal act, victorious plaintiffs in some civil rights cases can recover "reasonable" attorney's fees from defendant states whose legislatures have passed an unconstitutional law, as Massachusetts had done in the Grendel's case. The act was passed by Congress to encourage civil rights lawyers to take on cases they might otherwise be unable to afford.
Tribe's fee for services rendered was $264,206.25. Plus expenses.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts balked at the bill, and an ugly fracas ensued. Month after month in 1983 and '84, Tribe's avarice was denounced in newspapers and magazines. He was seeking $275 an hour in the case -- more money than most top-dollar senior partners in big city firms command from their corporate clients. He had failed to keep contemporaneous records of the time he spent on the case, and said in a court affidavit that he relied on hand-scrawled margin notes on his desk calendar to calculate his fees. His shoddy record-keeping fueled the arguments of his opponents -- it was revealed, for example, that one of Tribe's associates had charged Massachusetts $625 to write a one-sentence letter.
"Well, it was a long sentence," the associate explained.
Tribe was never accused of wrongdoing, and eventually an appeals court awarded him about half the amount for which he had originally applied. But the walls of his ivory tower had been breached. Questions were raised about his moonlighting work away from Harvard -- documents on file in the Grendel's case show that Tribe has charged outside clients as much as $525 an hour since 1981. Was he neglecting his teaching obligations? Was he abusing his position at Harvard? Was he carefully avoiding conflicts of interest?
Was he just a greedy lawyer like all the rest?
"It was a very unpleasant episode," Tribe says now. "It was one that I became embroiled with certainly not by choice . . . I had to be in the middle of it, and therefore not in a very effective position to defend myself because it always looked self-interested."
That the evidence exonerated Tribe on every important issue -- and that he does most of his outside work these days for no fee -- is not enough to expunge the bad taste lingering from the affair. It made plain that even for Tribe, the law was not simply "a place where ideas could change the world." It was also -- sometimes -- a place where money could contaminate ideas.
Beyond ideas, beyond money, there is power.
And again, on an issue so central to the culture of his profession, Tribe is caught uncomfortably "in the middle of it."
His capacity for self-promotion appears extraordinary, even for a profession that counts humility among the seven deadly sins. A cartoonist once depicted Tribe standing on a table at the Supreme Court, bellowing about his latest victory. He keeps track of his press clippings the way another lawyer might chart the stock performance of a corporate client.
He wants very much to someday be a Supreme Court justice; about that, his friends say, there can be no doubt. Tribe, of course, is appropriately discreet about the matter. "I'm enjoying what I do enough that it wouldn't make any sense to think of that as a kind of target, because I think I can make a contribution doing what I'm doing," he says. "Obviously, if that were to happen, I would take that kind of opportunity very seriously."
He and his wife are active in Democratic politics -- they have hosted Cambridge fundraisers for Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Gary Hart (D-Colo.), two men who might one day have the opportunity to consider Tribe as a Supreme Court nominee. Perhaps it would be preposterous, as those who know Tribe well contend, to suggest that Tribe's liberal activism and his fundraisers are designed to further his own personal ambitions. But really, that is beside the point. The trouble, as Tribe himself acknowledges, is that when a man steps off the "womblike" campus of Harvard University and into the bloody fray of legal practice, it is hard not to "always look self-interested."
It goes with the territory.
Yet an important byproduct of Tribe's life at Harvard, he insists, is that he doesn't have to dirty his hands to make a difference. "Most of my classmates who did things like what I did both in law school and as law clerks are earning lots of money as Wall Street or Washington lawyers," he says. "Maybe they wield a kind of power, a day-to-day authority over dozens of associates in their law firms, but I don't think they are affecting the course of events very much . . .
"I mean, I think it's nice that they have that kind of power , but I don't aspire to it. What I like to do is exert whatever power I can through the ideas that I have. If I can persuade either judges, or senators, or congressmen, or people generally, that what I really believe in is something they ought to believe in as well -- that's as much power as I really feel any need to have."
Tribe's voice starts racing now, and his face begins to flush. He is talking about a kind of power that eludes his peers on Wall Street and in Washington, a kind of power that is immediate and personal and inflating.
"One of the things I very much believe in, even if it sounds sort of old-fashioned, is the search for truth . . . I write a great many things about the relationship between various ideas that in the end I think can be cited on both sides of causes and cases that I care about. And it does happen. In fact, when I argue cases, quite often articles that I've written or books that I've written have been cited by both sides in the courts below, and by sometimes the majority and the dissent . . ."
It is the power of pure intellect -- the power, real or imagined, of Laurence Tribe's mind.