Radical attorney William Moses Kunstler, who died Monday at 76, was a fun-loving man, joyous and playful, whose favorite game was full of danger.
Ambling through the once-grand, now grimy courthouses of downtown Manhattan, he greeted everyone from the judges to the janitors with a hale and happy bellow. He bought rolls and coffee for the Jewish Defense League members who routinely protested outside his Greenwich Village town house. He had a big wet kiss for all the women and most of the men he met.
He wasn't from the Age of Aquarius -- he was an intelligence officer in the Pacific during World War II -- but he loved that age so much he never left it. The 1960s found Kunstler living in Westchester County with a wife and two daughters, commuting to midtown and writing wills.
He wore a dignified haircut.
He was the author of a book called "Corporate Tax Summary."
He was, he recalled a couple of years ago, "bored out of my skull."
Then he volunteered to represent some of the "Freedom Riders," and that led to work with Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X and Lenny Bruce -- who injected Kunstler with heroin during an office Christmas party. Like Harvard's Timothy Leary and Yale's David Dellinger, Kunstler was a highly educated, highly intelligent middle-aged man, safely ensconced in the Establishment, who, come the revolution, looked at all the fun people were having and dived in the deep end.
"In those days, you remember, it was free sex," he once said gleefully. "I spoke on many, many college campuses, and there were many beautiful young women who would make themselves available to me. I was a star. It happened all the time. What was I to do?"
Naturally, he converged with the yippies, with Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and the others. They, like Kunstler, were giddy guerrillas, silly subversives, connoisseurs of Radical Cheek. And when they came together at the Chicago 7 trial, Kunstler found his favorite game.
It was the fall of 1969, into the winter of 1970. Hoffman, Rubin, Dellinger and four other anti-war activists were on trial for conspiring to disrupt the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Kunstler might have defended his clients by teasing out the facts of the case. He could have practiced deft cross-examination. He could have turned fine points of law to his advantage.
But how dull!
Instead, he turned the tables and put the court on trial. He mocked the judge -- the eminently mockable Julius Hoffman. He waved an envelope full of marijuana, and when Hoffman instructed him to get rid of it, Kunstler answered: "I shall see to it personally that this is burned tonight." He made the trial a circus and himself the ringmaster.
That game, more than anything else, gave Kunstler his spot in the history books and made his death front-page news.
In a sense, he spent the rest of his life replaying that game -- Turn the Tables. The American Rule of Law was on one side and Kunstler picked the other. When the New York City police amassed evidence that a drug dealer named Larry Davis tried to kill half a dozen cops, Kunstler turned the tables by suggesting that the cops were in the drug business themselves, and won. When a punk named Darrell Cabey tried to rob a high-strung nerd named Bernhard Goetz on the subway and Goetz shot him, Kunstler took the robber's case and sued the robbee.
When El Sayyid Nosair shot Rabbi Meir Kahane to death in a crowded ballroom, was captured in front of a crowd of witnesses and virtually confessed to a newspaper reporter, Kunstler turned the trial into an attack on Kahane's organization, the JDL. Nosair was acquitted. When Colin Ferguson walked through a packed commuter train, shooting at everyone he saw, Kunstler tried to make the case into an examination of the rage of black men in America.
The actual merits of these strategies varied from case to case -- more than once, Kunstler won cases in which no conventional approach would have had a prayer. But the merits mattered little to Kunstler compared with the game -- "the eternal fight," he liked to call it. Yesterday, a joke was circulating that Kunstler had already filed suit on behalf of the fallen angel Satan, claiming wrongful eviction from Heaven.
It was a dangerous game; even some very strong critics of The System saw the menace in Kunstler's methods. Longtime ACLU activist Henry Schwarzschild believed that Kunstler was "very bad for the left. The passionate social politics of the 1960s were transformed, by Bill and others like him, into theater: dadaist, frivolous theater, rather than serious, political-moral passion."
Or take a look at the circus in Judge Lance Ito's Los Angeles courtroom to see where the Kunstler game can lead. It must have pained Kunstler deeply not to have a place on O.J.'s Dream Team.
What will be left when all the tables have been turned and the Rule of Law is replaced by the dynamics of theater? Will America be a better place to live? Bill Kunstler cared not one whit. He simply flung himself into the game, unreservedly, happily, lustily, steadfastly -- which was both the best and the worst thing about him. CAPTION: To William Kunstler, lawyering was "the eternal fight." CAPTION: Lawyer William Kunstler gave up a respectable life in which he was "bored out of his skull" to turn the tables on the American Rule of Law.