A couple of weeks ago, in my capacity as syndicator of the radio/online program “Ring of Fire,” I attended a national legal conference. One of our show’s hosts, Mike Papantonio, a leading class-action attorney, is also the event’s host. (Our other hosts are author and political savant, David Bender, and Pap’s law partner, environmental super lawyer, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.) Through the years, this conference has afforded me the opportunity of meeting some great speakers, from Bill Clinton to Terry Bradshaw. Each one offered interesting and thought-provoking ideas that led to deep conversation. (Okay, not quite so much in the case of Terry Bradshaw, but he was funny). This time the speaker wasn’t just legendary; he was magical. This man seemed to cast a spell over this room of 500 or so of America’s leading trial lawyers. The man was Holocaust survivor, Nobel Prize laureate and author, Professor Elie Wiesel.
One would not dare to compare American trial lawyers with a hero like Elie Wiesel. However, I’m not surprised Professor Wiesel chose to do so himself. He talked about his ongoing fight against oppression and compared it to the American trial lawyers’ fight against racism in the American South. He pointed to the table where Morris Dees and his Southern Poverty Law Center colleagues sat, and reminded us that when law enforcement ran out of tools (or mostly in the South, refused to use them), the SPLC used the civil courts to bankrupt the Ku Klux Klan. What law enforcement couldn’t (and wouldn’t) do, the lawyers did.
Elie Wiesel is an advocate of conscience; he is a fighter of good fights. He is someone who unfailingly does the right thing. In fact, on that subject, he was instructive. He invoked Mark Twain’s adage, “Do the right thing, it will gratify some people and astonish the rest.” That—day after day, and against all odds—is what American trial lawyers do. Prof. Wiesel knew what they had in common. He said trial lawyers should be proud for they are the last line of defense against unscrupulous business, loose regulations, incompetent regulators, and an unsuspecting public. (Days later the Deep Horizons drilling rig exploded in the Gulf, and Pap and Bobby began meeting with municipalities, tourism officials, and the fishing industry to make sure BP, Halliburton, Cameron, and Transocean live up to their civil responsibilities.)
Prof. Wiesel is, as they say around here, no bigger than a minute. He speaks without notes. Quietly. Authoritatively. With a knowing focus. Without hesitation. The typical luncheon speech is accompanied by rattling plates and clinking glasses. This room was silent. Everyone straining to hear a small and dignified man.
I had the opportunity to introduce friends who live in Las Vegas to Prof. Wiesel before the luncheon began. I knew that Max, a Belgian Jew who served in the Israeli army, would be interested, but I did not know his uncle was in Buchenwald as a boy. He asked Prof. Wiesel if he knew his uncle. Wiesel’s eyes lit up. He said, “I knew your uncle well. We went from Buchenwald to France together as 14-year-olds.” They lapsed into Yiddish and I didn’t understand the rest of the conversation, but the way they looked at each other was clear enough. Their bond could not be mistaken.
In a private moment before he sat with David Bender for our video interview, I had the opportunity to ask Prof. Wiesel if the rumors I heard were true. Had Bernie Madoff stolen not just his foundation’s money but also his personal savings? He nodded yes. “My wife and I discussed it. She said, ‘Well, we’ve seen worse.’ ” When you’ve seen what they have, I guess money loses some of its importance.
Somehow, Ellie Wiesel is a hopeful man: “My dream for your future is that your children will not have my past.” He was attracted to these American trial lawyers because they help the powerless in a never-ending struggle against the powerful. That’s his kind of fight.