Tuesday, May 12, 2009

This Day in Legal History (Henry Ford’s Libel Suit Begins)

May 12, 1919—In a courtroom in Mt. Clemens, Mich., the $1 million libel suit filed by Henry Ford against the Chicago Tribune began. When it was over, a few months and more than 2 million words in the public records later, the most innovative and admired industrialist in the U.S.—the Steve Jobs of his day—stood exposed as an ignoramus. It was the first step in the sharp ratcheting down of his reputation.

Let’s step back from recent editorials and blog posts and remember that there once was a time, not so long ago, in America when businessmen weren’t being staked out overnight in their Greenwich homes, but were positively lionized.

The height of absurdity might have been reached in the period just before 9/11, when a large part of the public couldn’t get enough of Jack Welch, “America’s #1 CEO,” praised to the skies for leading GE “to one revenue and earnings record after another.” (He did it, this Business Week article from which I’m quoting admitted, because he “astutely moved the once-Establishment maker of things into services.” Along the way, he helped a country forget how to manufacture. Oh, well…)

Before him, though, we even had the names of businessman floated for public office—even major-party tickets. There was Ross Perot, who in 1992 won 19% of the popular vote—the highest for a third-party candidate since Teddy Roosevelt; Lee Iocacca, who, after leading Chrysler back from the brink of bankruptcy, trailed George H.W. Bush by only three percentage points as Presidential polls heated up in the mid’80s; and even Donald “short-fingered vulgarian” (in the brilliant description of the late magazine Spy) Trump, who inspired numerous fantasies about what he might do in government after he managed to get the Wollman skating rink remodeled after the Koch administration had abysmally failed to do so.

But the man who got there first was Ford, the farm boy who won Americans’ hearts and dollars with his knack for tinkering—and who lost their affection eventually because of his dictatorial business practices and insane prejudices.

The libel suit established with nary a doubt that the industrialist was a fool of a client, but it wouldn’t have gotten to this point, if you ask me, if Ford didn’t have a fool for a lawyer—and, before it or not, it wasn’t himself.

Maybe Ford’s chief counsel, Alfred Lucking, thought they had a pretty good shot at punishing the Trib’s reactionary publisher, Robert McCormick, for questioning the businessmen’s patriotism because of a mistaken news report. (The Trib thought erroneously that company workers would not be guaranteed their regular wage if they were called to serve in National Guard units sent to catch Pancho Villa.)

But Lucking forgot that the courtroom can become, in the right circumstances, a Bermuda Triangle for the unwary. And he didn’t make anything easier for his client by:

*arguing, preposterously, that Ford was not a public figure—at least, not for purposes of this suit;

*=trying the patience of the judge in the case by spending a whole day on this point; and

* broadening the scope of the libel suit away from McCormick’s ridiculous claim that Ford was an anarchist to a more general claim that the entire article ruined his reputation.

The latter claim in particular opened the door to MCormick’s lead attorney, Elliott Stevenson of Detroit, to subject Ford to a grueling six-day cross-examination. By the time Stevenson was done, he’d revealed vast canyons of ignorance in Ford about the American Revolution (which, the automaker thought, was in 1812), and about Benedict Arnold (“a writer, I think”).
Ford demonstrated why he thought history was "more or less bunk": he knew so little about it. If, by some miracle, he had ever gotten into the Oval Office, it seems like a safe bet to say that no other occupant would have known so little about the country he was to lead.

The jury’s verdict was reminiscent of the one in the novel and TV-series QB 7, by Leon Uris: i.e., the plaintiff won, but the ridiculously low damages (in this case, only six cents!) testified to jurors' opinion of his true worth.

By the end of his life, Ford, a onetime business icon, came to be loathed by many for his anti-Semitism and anti-labor activity.

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