"It became increasingly apparent to me that this was a remarkable story of personal treachery, clandestine political skullduggery, enormous professional hatred within the legal community, a zealous prosecution-all with ramifications that extended to the high levels in Washington," writes acclaimed retired journalist Curtis Wilkie and Associate Professor at the University of Mississippi in the preface to his new book "The Fall of the House of Zeus: The Rise and Ruin of America's Most Powerful Trial Lawyer."

In many ways a biography of Dickie Scruggs, Wilkie walks the reader through the early life of Scruggs and gives an inside seat to the strategies of the asbestos lawsuits, the tobacco litigation wars and the network of attorneys in search of "the big lick" who battled each other in politics and backroom deals. But it was the "ruin" of a judicial bribery scandal that brought down Scruggs and several of his colleagues and has already generated one earlier book: "Kings of Tort: The true story of Dickie Scruggs, Paul Minor, and two decades of political and legal manipulation in Mississippi" by Y'all Politics publisher Alan Lange and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Dawson.

Wilkie, an acknowledged friend of Scruggs, discusses in depth Scruggs' charitable work and generosity, and the affection he enjoyed from his friends. But he contrasts that with stories of double crosses and boorish
behavior that seemed to always shock his allies while expected by his adversaries.

Certainly some choices the author made in the book - whether through inclusion or exclusion - struck me as biased, but that is his choice and more importantly it did not detract from the enthralling read. Just as I enjoyed "Roll With Ross" by Erle Johnston, knowing he was Ross Barnett's former press secretary and executive director for the Mississippi Sovereignt Commission; I enjoyed Wilkie's account of Scruggs, knowing they are friends and suspecting a certain amount of public relations was directed at Wilkie.

More than just a book on judicial bribery, "Zeus" is a book on very specific Mississippi politics and Wilkie's perspective of the old Jim Eastland machine politics and the descendents of that good ol' boys network.

Of high interest to someone like me who is more connected to Republican political stories and factions than those of Democrats, the book provided insights and stories of which I had only heard whispers: when State Auditor Steve Patterson and Hinds District Attorney Ed Peters planned to go after Attorney General Mike Moore and indict Dickie Scruggs; Moore's prosecution of Jackson County "Godfather" Eddie Khayat; and the creation of the trial lawyer political arm ICEPAC. Other stories including the trial lawyer elite's sway over Gov. Ronnie Musgrove's judicial appointments; the prosecution of Paul Minor; Scruggs' political war with Insurance Commissioner George Dale; the tobacco wars; the asbestos lawsuits; and the cozy relationship between trial lawyers and first Attorney General Mike Moore and then Attorney General Jim Hood have been written on or reported on significantly over the years.

Cameos by Washington figures include now Vice President Joe Biden, former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson, Arizona Sen. John McCain, and strategist Dick Morris. Former Sen. Trent Lott plays a central role both personally (his wife Tricia is sister to Diane Scruggs, wife of Dickie) and professionally. Wilkie notes time and again that relationship was a double-edged sword for Scruggs who benefited with the ability to reach into high level Republican politics, but was viewed with suspicion by many Democrats in Mississippi creating trust barriers with some who should have been allies and friends. Wilkie expresses a particular fascination with Lott's connections to his Sigma Nu fraternity and the network of his fraternal brothers in public office.

Those with connections to the University of Mississippi should particularly find the story interesting because it is highly Ole Miss and Oxford centric. It could not help but be so with that institution and town playing such a large role in the life of Scruggs and other characters, including the location for much of the narrative.

In the end, Wilkie portrays Scruggs as a good man corrupted by his own competitive nature, an addiction to the barbiturate Fioricet, and those figures he deems on the "dark side of the Force." Wilkie described Scruggs as someone "fascinated by the intrigue of politics and eager to become an inside player himself" who was "drawn to men bearing the appearance of impropriety" and "tugged by the excitement of operating in the shadows." Despite his wife's disapproval of his colleagues, "Scruggs realized consorting with rogues was far more exciting than wallowing in the drudgery of bankruptcy law" and his obsession with winning convinced him "to consort with rascals" and "to employ grit and guile to prevail."

The book serves as an entertaining narrative, a political science course, and a warning lesson - not unlike a Greek tragedy.



Brian Perry is a partner in a public affairs firm. Contact him at reasonablyright@brianperry.ms.