The World v. Alan Dershowitz

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alan dershowitz

Alan Dershowitz, photographed in his New York City home last month. / Portrait by Chris Buck

Alan Dershowitz is the author of 35 books, and by his count, at least the second-most-published lawyer in the universe. As a cable-news fixture, as a legal advocate for celebrities in deep criminal shit, he has again and again propelled himself into the nation’s collective field of vision like some kind of fame-seeking dirigible. (There’s an old joke about a TV camera and Alan Dershowitz and it being imprudent to position oneself between the two.) The first time we meet, though, he doesn’t seem eager for exposure.

It is evening in mid-September and a thunderstorm has recently cleared up over the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Dershowitz is at the 92nd Street Y talking with Jeffrey Toobin, his former Harvard Law School student and fellow pop jurist. Dersh, the onetime possessor of an iconic ’fro, has at 78 years old settled for a more cropped look. Tonight, like Toobin, he is wearing a dark suit and unfortunate laceless slip-ons. The occasion of their conversation is the publication of Toobin’s latest book, a fat tome on the saga of heiress and kidnapee Patty Hearst, one of Dershowitz’s former clients. Audience questions come in written form and steer the subject away from Hearst toward Dershowitz.

“This is a question I’ve never been asked before,” Dershowitz deadpans, peering down at a stack of index cards.

“Knowing you have a guilty client who committed a heinous crime, how do you deal with defending and getting an acquittal for such a client?”

“Enough about O.J., okay?” chimes Toobin, to audience titters. It is the season for O.J. nostalgia, as multiple multipart television events have retraced Simpson’s double-murder trial—and, to an extent, Dershowitz’s role on his defense team. But Dershowitz, who relishes moralistic grillings, takes the question at face value.

“The reason I defend the guilty is because I want to make sure there are very few innocent who are ever charged,” he says evenly. “The vast majority of people charged with crimes are guilty, thank God for that. We wouldn’t want to live in a country where the majority of people charged with crimes were innocent.” With that out of the way, Dershowitz indulges the crowd and retraces the disputed provenance of the blood splotches on O.J. Simpson’s sock.

After the program ends, the two men repair to the lobby, where Toobin signs copies of the Hearst book and Dershowitz sits at an adjacent table signing copies of his latest, a slim political treatise called Electile Dysfunction that he dashed off longhand over the summer in Martha’s Vineyard. The line for autographed copies of Electile Dysfunction dissipates quite a bit sooner than Toobin’s line, so I walk up to the emeritus law professor and say hello. Dershowitz, who had texted me that morning that he was “traveling,” blanches and informs me he has to take off for Virginia the very next morning, and should probably be getting home. I acknowledge that the last time we spoke, in the spring, he had expressed reticence about submitting to a magazine profile. Dershowitz nods as he begins to shuffle away. “There’s still reticence.”

Alan Morton Dershowitz is not, as a rule, reticent. The point of his most famous book, Chutzpah, was to admonish fellow Jews for their reticence. Besides, the guy was on with Megyn Kelly the night before, plugging Electile Dysfunction and cracking “arousal” jokes about his support for Hillary Clinton. Lately, though, he’s had reason to proceed with caution. For the past two years, Dershowitz’s highest-profile case has been his own.

In late 2014, a woman named Virginia Roberts alleged in court that financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein had kept her as an underage sex slave, while arranging for various high-profile friends—including Dershowitz—to sleep with her. Dershowitz himself wasn’t sued and was never charged with anything, but nevertheless went ballistic, denying the accusation vigorously. What followed was an almost absurdly rancorous prizefight between Dershowitz’s and Roberts’s high-profile lawyers. They sued him for defamation. He shot back with claims of an extortion plot. Both sides dug in.

The legal warfare has come at a fraught time for Dershowitz. Since retiring from Harvard at the end of 2013, he has been fighting a different, ideological battle. The recent trend in left-wing activism has been to tackle power imbalances among different identity groups. Black Lives Matter has become the dominant social protest movement of its generation. Reports of campus sexual assaults have skyrocketed. Meanwhile, the rhetoric behind the new progressivism can seem at once militant and ultrasensitive, as intent on shouting down injustice as policing hurtful words.

Much of this horrifies Dershowitz, who sees in the movement left-wing intolerance and speech-chilling political correctness. He has responded—in op-eds, on cable news—with stridency. “He’s upset by it, panicked by it, sees the implications for the future,” says his friend and collaborator Harvey Silverglate, a Cambridge civil liberties lawyer. And the implications for his legacy. The identity politics he bemoans, with its focus on various forms of entrenched privilege, does not look kindly on old white guys prone to burping out politically incorrect broadsides. Especially not when they’ve been accused of sleeping with an underage sex slave.

After considerable back-and-forth—there is always back-and-forth with Dershowitz—he eventually agrees to speak with me, at length. I accompany him to taped media appearances. We drive around his old Brooklyn neighborhood. He explains to me that in the end he’d rather try to clear his name in public than play it safe. Despite the cases having been resolved, he is, he says, the elusive innocent victim. “I’m not satisfied with the case just dying,” he says. “There are still people who believe it. I have to persuade everyone that there is nothing to this, that it’s a frame-up. And I won’t rest until I’ve done that.”

In an immediate sense, Dershowitz is fighting to make sure his New York Times obituary doesn’t contain the words “Jeffrey Epstein.” But it’s a mistake to see this latest bout of truculence as a one-off. Dershowitz feels under siege, not just from his accuser, or her superstar lawyers, but also from a whole constellation of contemporary norms. In a political moment suffused with status anxiety—much of it the white male variety that carried Donald Trump to the presidency—Dershowitz, too, seems eager to reassert his place in the world. So he’s reverted to doing what he does best: getting the last word.

What Dershowitz Implored Us to Publish Above All Else

In a 2014 affidavit, Virginia Roberts, an alleged “sex slave” of the financier Jeffrey Epstein, accused Alan Dershowitz of having had sexual relations with her in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In April, Dershowitz settled a related defamation suit with Roberts’s lawyers. Statement 1 reflects that settlement. Statement 2 was released by former FBI director Louis Freeh, whom Dershowitz hired to investigate Roberts’s claims.

1.

“…Edwards and Cassell acknowledge that it was a mistake to have filed sexual misconduct accusations against Dershowitz [and] the sexual misconduct accusations made in all public filings (including all exhibits) are hereby withdrawn. Dershowitz also withdraws his accusations that Edwards and Cassell acted unethically. ” —Bradley Edwards, Paul Cassell, Alan Dershowitz, April 2016

2.

“In my opinion, the totality of the evidence found during the investigation refutes the allegations made against Professor Dershowitz.” —Louis Freeh, April 2016

— You may now resume reading. —

 

In a way, it started with the skin flicks. In 1969, Boston’s Symphony Cinema, long since defunct, attempted to screen I Am Curious (Yellow), a Swedish movie banned by the state of Massachusetts. The film was disturbing, pretentious, and a critical failure. But it generated infamy for a scene in which a woman kissed a man’s limp penis. Boston police seized the reel, and suddenly everyone wanted to watch. Enter Alan Dershowitz. At 30 years old and already the youngest tenured professor in the history of Harvard Law School, he was hired to represent the distributor. The prodigy had scant courtroom experience, but successfully convinced a federal court to lift the ban. I Am Curious (Yellow) would go on to become the top-grossing foreign film in America.

Fast-forward to 1975. By the time Dershowitz represented Deep Throat star Harry Reems, who was appealing a conviction on an obscenity charge—merely for appearing in the hit porno—Dershowitz had become the free-speech lawyer of record. Dershowitz’s porn period wasn’t just a porn period. The two cases bookended his evolution from wunderkind scholar to megawatt lawyer and public intellectual. Dershowitz was a free-speech fetishist and an at-all-costs opponent of government censorship, establishing him during the secretive era of the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate scandal as a folk hero in his own right. Thanks to his growing renown, Dershowitz also exerted his First Amendment right to never again be quiet. He scored standing gigs on proto-shoutfests such as Firing Line and The Advocates. He wrote a monthly column for Penthouse. He’d pop up in places so obscure it was hard to accuse him of being a standard-issue attention hound. “He used to appear on Soviet TV back in the days of the USSR,” recalls Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam. “To be fair to him, he’s never eschewed small-bandwidth publicity vehicles.”

Soon, media saturation became a legal strategy, too. He seemed to spend as much time spinning his cases to the press as he did trying them. “What he taught me in all of my cases is you’ve got to pay attention both to what’s happening inside the courtroom and outside the courtroom,” says his former research assistant Susan Estrich, who recently represented ousted Fox News chief Roger Ailes in his sexual harassment case. “Alan’s message was always, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ Too many lawyers are afraid to talk to the press, lest they say one word wrong.”

alan dershowitz oj simpson

Dershowitz was a member of O.J. Simpson’s legal “dream team” during Simpson’s murder trial. / Photograph via Reuters

Exposure begat more exposure. With each passing year Dershowitz’s notoriety increased alongside that of his clients. In 1983, he argued the appeal for Newport socialite Claus von Bülow, who had been found guilty of attempting to murder his wife, Sunny, with insulin injections. Dershowitz won the case, and wrote a book about the trial, Reversal of Fortune, which became an Academy Award–winning movie (coproduced by Dershowitz’s son Elon). Von Bülow was pissed about his icky portrayal in the film—it was implied that he had once had conjugal relations with his mother’s corpse. But by then, the professor had moved on. There were other celebs—Mike Tyson and Leona Helmsley and Conrad Black and Michael Milken and David Crosby and Jim Bakker—who needed saving. Such was his omnipresence: He was reportedly hired by O.J. Simpson’s defense team to get him to stop appearing on television and hinting at their client’s guilt.

(I’m risking a lengthy letter to the editor, one that will probably come regardless of what I write, if I don’t at this juncture make perfectly clear that Dershowitz has taken a ton of worthy, obscure pro bono cases over the years.)

It was during this era of Dershian ubiquity—from the von Bülow case to the Simpson trial a dozen years later—that public opinion seemed to turn against him. Everybody had a different gripe. In the late 1980s, this magazine staged a kind of journalistic “trial” to investigate his egomania. A few years later, GQ ran a brutal piece arguing that he’d sold his soul for fame and money, while simultaneously cheapening his Jewish heritage by constantly accusing his foes of anti-Semitism. The anti-Semites, for their part, sent him countless pieces of hate mail, mostly to complain that he was appearing on their TV sets at all.

But it’s self-defeating to lament Dershowitz’s desire for publicity. The more one criticizes Dershowitz for pushing his personal brand, the more inclined he is to hop on television and defend himself for doing so. For him, anything less amounts to craven self-censorship—or worse: tribal betrayal. “Notwithstanding the stereotype, we [Jews] are not pushy or assertive enough for our own good,” he wrote in Chutzpah, in 1991. “Despite our apparent success, deep down we see ourselves as second-class citizens—as guests in another person’s land.” Dershowitz’s habit of showing up in your living room came not from a sense of entitlement, but from insecurity.

Which brings us back to present-day New York City, where Dershowitz is hoping to make a few statements for the record.

 

A couple of weeks after the Toobin talk, Dershowitz invites me to interview him in between other, previously scheduled interviews. It’s a chilly day in Manhattan, where he has lived since his retirement from Harvard. Dershowitz is wearing a Lululemon baseball cap and a dark tie, to mourn the death of former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who had passed away the night before. We grab an outdoor table in Bryant Park near the editorial offices of Newsmax, where he keeps a standing TV gig to discuss current events and plug the odd book.

Ideologically, Newsmax is the opposite of state-run Soviet TV, though credibility-wise, the two are about even. Friendly to Israel and suspicious of political correctness in a mainstream, Republican way, the website/cable channel is in some ways a comfortable venue for late-period Dershowitz. Still, he seems anxious that his lower-rent media appearances might lead to misguided generalizations.

“People misunderstand me greatly,” he says, announcing our topic for the afternoon. In person, he’s shyer, more awkward than his public persona would suggest. “I’m seen by some as extreme because sometimes I state my views quite firmly, categorically—particularly on television, where nuance is difficult.” Tinny classical Muzak is emanating from an outdoor speaker somewhere in the vicinity of the New York Public Library. “Some people think I am a radical leftist because of my history of supporting civil rights. Some people think I’m a neofascist person of the right because of my support for Israel. But I’ve always been, even when I was very young, a centrist liberal.”

Dershowitz was raised Orthodox Jewish in Borough Park, Brooklyn, during the 1940s and ’50s. (He hasn’t been strictly observant for decades.) His mother was a bookkeeper and his father ran a shop that sold workmen’s clothing. Alan, then “Avi,” worked his first job tying strings around the ends of hot dogs. Deli grunt was at that point a plausible career path for the woefully underachieving 14-year-old. But he eventually eked his way to Brooklyn College—first in his family to earn a degree—and from there he metamorphosed into a student who would graduate first in his class from Yale Law School. After being turned down by the 30-odd white-shoe firms he applied to—the explanation is anti-Semitism—he eventually scored a clerkship with Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, and from there, a professorship at Harvard Law School.

Dershowitz came of age in an era of liberal ascendancy. “Jews have always been caught between the black and the red—between the extremes of communism and fascism,” he says. The stated purpose of his latest book, Electile Dysfunction, which Dershowitz has brought along with him today in his coat pocket, is to explain the 2016 presidential election through the lens of populist extremism, with the white nationalism of today’s alt-right and the identity politics of today’s far left standing in for the black and the red of earlier eras. Filled with digressions about pet topics, it’s not the best book Dershowitz has written. It’s also not, at its heart, about the election that just concluded, but about Dershowitz’s own sense of political alienation. “I do feel very much out of the mainstream on university campuses,” he says of the arena he left just three years ago. Lately, Newsmax and, if he’s lucky, Megyn Kelly are more interested in his work than Charlie Rose or Rachel Maddow. It’s not for nothing that he’s calling his next book Why I Left the Left but Couldn’t Join the Right.

Many never considered him a man of the left to begin with. His interventionist foreign policy views and fervent Zionism have long repulsed critics like MIT’s Noam Chomsky, who told me over email that he finds Dershowitz’s “polemical work utterly appalling.” Dershowitz’s newest beef, though, isn’t with Chomsky or his fellow travelers, but with a new generation of progressives who, broadly, aim to prevent privileged groups from doing harm to less privileged groups. Dershowitz has no issue when that means stopping unwarranted police violence against young black men, or unwanted sexual advances from toadish cable-news overlords. But when it comes to the subtler manifestations of harm prevention, his hackles are raised. “Safe space” and “trigger warning” and “microaggression” have become familiar terms. In the Deep Throat era, Harvard students tended to fight against the censors. Now, many of them have joined their ranks. Naturally, all of this spooks the free-speech absolutist. “We often forget that the benign-sounding term ‘political correctness’ originated under Stalin,” Dershowitz writes in Electile Dysfunction. “Extremists begin by banning and burning books, and they end by banning and burning people.” (The book is not as lighthearted as its title would suggest.)

Campus political correctness isn’t new for Dershowitz. He was yelling about it in the 1980s and 1990s. To Dershowitz, though, it isn’t just certain words that are getting thumbs-upped and thumbs-downed. It’s groups of people: “Christians on campus are not oppressed, conservatives on campus are not oppressed, Jews on campus are not oppressed. Only Palestinians and gays and transsexuals are oppressed.” The coddling such groups receive, he argues, obviates their claims to victimhood. “There is no ‘white privilege’ on college campuses. There is privilege for people who claim the mantle of oppression.”

The off-campus manifestations of the movement unsettle him, too. “People who now call themselves progressives—say, Black Lives Matter—are not progressives,” Dershowitz says. “They’re identity politics [people]. Only black lives matter. And only black lives matter when white policemen, or other policemen, kill them.” There’s irony here. In the 1990s, Dershowitz popularized the term “testilying” to describe the routine perjury committed by police officers questioned in court. At the time, he was a vocal and prescient skeptic of the American criminal justice system. (Famously, the O.J. Simpson defense team capitalized on African-American mistrust of the L.A. Police Department.) But now that the issue has entered the mainstream, he seems to have lost interest. Instead, he chides tenured professors for capitulating to PC culture and gives free legal advice to college men who say they’ve been falsely accused of sexual assault. The progressive pendulum, he believes, has swung too far, at the expense of free speech and due process: “It’s difficult to fight back. If you do you’re called a racist or a sexist or a homophobe.”

After a 10-minute Newsmax hit and a cup of to-go soup for lunch, Dershowitz and I walk to his next appointment, at Reuters in Times Square. The occasion is a broadcast interview—topic: Electile Dysfunction—with Sir Harry Evans, the storied, semiretired British journalist who keeps referring to the book as Erectile Dysfunction. The interview is meant to air live on the publication’s Facebook page; we sit in a makeshift green room and wait to be summoned.

A sprightly young Reuters employee named Yahaira brings us two bottles of water.

“What a beautiful name: Yahaira,” Dershowitz says genially. “Where does it come from?”

“I’m Mexican. My parents are Mexican,” Yahaira says.

“Are you a rapist?” Dershowitz asks, an incongruously pleasant smile still plastered on his face.

Errrr. Yahaira manages an approximation of a laugh. “Not at all.”

Dersh doubles down. “You’re not a rapist and you’re from Mexico?!” he asks in a mock-incredulous tone. There is panic in her eyes now. Dershowitz, still grinning, shakes his head and asks aloud, “What do you think of that guy?” It turns out he has been attempting to satirize Donald Trump. Slowly, shoulders untense and business resumes more or less as usual.

Depending on your point of view, this was either a harmless attempt at humor or, you know, a racially obtuse microaggression that only an old white guy would find funny.

 

Dershowitz, despite the megawatt career, has never been a glamorous figure. At the height of his fame, he looked most comfortable not at the side of his celebrity clients but in his cramped Harvard office, wearing oversize aviator eyeglasses and itchy-looking sweaters. His social profile began to improve in 1996 upon meeting the financier Jeffrey Epstein through Lynn Forester de Rothschild, a Martha’s Vineyard friend. She told him Epstein was a brilliant autodidact who loved meeting interesting people. Epstein visited Dershowitz in Cambridge, sent him a thank-you bottle of wine, and a week later called to invite him to the 59th birthday party of Victoria’s Secret founder Leslie Wexner. “I said, ‘Who’s going to be there?’” Dershowitz tells me. “[He said], ‘Shimon Peres is going to be there. Senator [John] Glenn, the astronaut. Alfred Taubman, the head of Sothebys.’” Dershowitz was in.

Dershowitz had represented the fabulously wealthy before, but had never been friends with anyone on Epstein’s level. There was a ranch in New Mexico, a mansion in Palm Beach, a private island in the Caribbean—plus Epstein’s primary residence, a 50,000-square-foot townhouse said to be the largest in Manhattan. Dershowitz was bowled over. “I met Prince Andrew through him. I mean, I’m a kid from Borough Park, an Orthodox, poor community, hanging around with a prince, and [scientists] who were going to win the Nobel Prize. That’s pretty thrilling.”

Epstein, who also became close with Harvard grandees such as Larry Summers, made a $30 million donation to the university. Dershowitz, in turn, began flying on Epstein’s jet and hanging out in Palm Beach. Dersh, like everyone else, didn’t necessarily understand how Epstein had become a billionaire. J. Epstein & Co. had only one known client: Wexner. But Epstein’s intellect was obvious, and he had a knack for gaining the trust of the cognoscenti. “I’m on my 20th book,” Dershowitz told Vanity Fair in 2003. “The only person outside my immediate family that I send drafts to is Jeffrey.”

Then, two years later, the Epstein fairy tale ended abruptly. In 2005, Palm Beach police interviewed a 14-year-old girl living at a juvenile facility who said she had been paid to remove her clothes and massage Epstein while he masturbated and touched her with a vibrator. All told, police identified close to three dozen girls and women who were alleged to have worked for Epstein in a similar capacity, operating on a referral system. Some showed up at Epstein’s mansion just once; others told investigators they’d gone more than 100 times. After they had finished their sessions with Epstein, they said, they were sent packing with approximately $200 in cash, depending on how sexual the “massages” were. Epstein’s lawyers said he never knew the young women were underage.

When Palm Beach police began rifling through the sex toys and photographs of nude females scattered around his home, Epstein lawyered up. Dershowitz says he resisted Epstein’s request for representation—he was his friend, not his lawyer—but eventually gave in. Epstein hired investigators to trawl his accusers’ MySpace pages for mentions of drug use, alcohol abuse, and sexual references. Dershowitz took the materials to state prosecutors, who began to worry about the credibility of potential witnesses, and charged Epstein with just one count of solicitation of a minor for prostitution. Dershowitz was also instrumental in striking a deal with the U.S. Attorney’s Office that guaranteed federal charges wouldn’t be brought against Epstein. In 2009, after spending 13 months in a county jail and registering as a sex offender, Epstein was out, and soon paparazzi were photographing beautiful women leaving his mansion.

 

alan dershowitz jeffrey epstein

Financier Jeffrey Epstein and Alan Dershowitz met in 1996 through mutual friends from Martha’s Vineyard. / Photograph by Rick Friedman/Corbis/Getty Images

Behind the scenes, though, the Epstein drama played on. One by one, a number of the alleged victims reportedly reached out-of-court settlements with the billionaire. Then, in late 2014, a 31-year-old woman named Virginia Roberts sought to join two other women in a civil lawsuit alleging that federal prosecutors had violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act by neglecting to consult victims about the cushy non-prosecution deal Epstein had struck.

By this time, it had been nearly a decade since the Epstein affair began and the national mood had shifted; allegations that would have once been ignored or uneasily tolerated now regularly incited outrage.

When she was 15, Roberts claimed, working as a locker-room attendant at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, she became a traveling masseuse for Epstein. (Trump himself was sued for sexual assault in a separate Epstein-related case before the case was dropped.) Over the next three years, Roberts alleged, Epstein held her as his sexual captive. He would fly her to glamorous vacation spots—his private Boeing 727 was later dubbed the “Lolita Express”—and she would submit to his sexual whims.

Until that point, Dershowitz’s involvement had been that of Epstein’s attorney and friend. Suddenly, Roberts’s explosive filing stated that Epstein had offered her up to “prominent American politicians, powerful business executives, foreign presidents, a well-known Prime Minister, and other world leaders.” But she listed only four people by name: Prince Andrew, the Duke of York; British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell; modeling executive Jean Luc Brunel; and Dershowitz. (All four have denied Roberts’s claims.) In her sworn affidavit, Roberts claimed to have had sex with Dershowitz on numerous occasions, at several of Epstein’s residencies and his jet, while she was a minor. (Dershowitz is married and has three adult children. Carolyn Cohen, his second wife, is a psychologist.)

Shortly after 7 a.m. on January 5, Dershowitz appeared live on NBC’s Today show from his winter home in Miami Beach and promptly blew his top. “I have never seen her,” he told Matt Lauer. “I’ve never met her. I don’t even know who she is. And her lawyers have to know this.” An hour later, he was on CNN. “The real villains,” he said, were her attorneys—Bradley Edwards, a Florida lawyer, and Paul Cassell, a former Utah federal judge, both of whom specialize in victims’ rights cases. Over the course of his career, Dershowitz has repeated a maxim that rape is both the most underreported and overreported serious crime in America. But false accusations, he has argued, are the greater evil, for they cheapen the cause of legitimate victims. “I am seeking their disbarment,” Dershowitz added, “and that’s what ought to happen to them.”

The day after Dershowitz’s television appearances, Cassell and Edwards responded by filing a defamation lawsuit. Dershowitz countersued, and began mobilizing to discredit the allegations against him: Thirty-seven Harvard law professors signed a letter vouching for his good character. He hired former FBI director Louis Freeh to conduct a forensic audit of his travel and cell-phone records. Meanwhile, Roberts was increasing her own legal firepower: Powerhouse DC litigator David Boies—of Bush v. Gore and U.S. v. Microsoft fame—signed on to represent her in a related case.

The feud kept escalating. During an October 2015 court deposition, Dershowitz claimed he had not only been wrongly accused but also intentionally framed. Citing information he received from a woman who said she was a close friend of Roberts, he accused Edwards and Cassell of pressuring their client to name him in order to then use him as a pawn in a broader extortion plot aimed at another one of Epstein’s powerful friends, Leslie Wexner. Cassell, Edwards, and Boies fired back to me in a statement that “there is not and never has been any ‘billion dollar extortion plot’ or for that matter any extortion plot of any kind directed at Leslie Wexner or anyone else,” adding that “no attorney pressured” Roberts into lodging her accusation against Dershowitz. (An attorney for Wexner did not respond to requests for comment.)

Those who are close with Dershowitz say the accusation against him doesn’t jibe with his personality. “Knowing Alan, knowing his wife, knowing his family—it never added up to me,” Susan Estrich says. “Some guys like to operate that way. I’ve never seen him operate in that kind of way.” Indeed, the image of bookish Alan Dershowitz taking part in Dionysian underage massage sessions at 30,000 feet doesn’t totally compute. “As I said to my wife,” Dershowitz tells me, channeling his inner Alvy Singer, “I never had sex with an underage girl even when I was an underage boy!”

After more than a year in court, the dueling defamation lawsuits were laid to rest and the two sides settled. Though Roberts told the court she reaffirmed her accusations against Dershowitz, her lawyers formally withdrew them. Louis Freeh said his investigation pointed toward Dershowitz’s innocence. The two sides pledged to a mutual nonaggression pact and seemed to put the matter behind them.

Yet Dershowitz doesn’t feel vindicated. He’s advocating for legislation that would prevent lawyers from accusing nonparties (such as himself) in court, and may write a book about his experience. With the legal battle over, though, even higher stakes have come into focus: half a century of hard-won success and reputational glory. “It can’t be an accident,” he says, “that suddenly—I used to get requests for honorary degrees every year—I’ve gotten none since this happened, because nobody wants controversy. I’ve lost at least two clients, both of whom said they were sure I was innocent, but didn’t want the ‘baggage.’” When I ask him how he thinks his obituary will read, the first thing he says is, “Well, unfortunately, it will include this allegation, which makes me furious.” Later, in horror, he imagines his name being lumped with that of another infamous accusee. “This is not Bill Cosby,” he says. “I have led an absolutely exemplary life.”

Underlying recent accusations against Cosby—or Roger Ailes, or Donald Trump, for that matter—is an environment that has made it less daunting for victims of sexual abuse to lodge claims against the powerful. More broadly, what some deride as PC culture, others view as the welcome destabilization of a largely white, largely male power structure. When Trump criticizes political correctness, he is channeling resentment toward the (nonwhite, nonmale) demographic groups who tend to benefit from it. In this way, Dershowitz has much to fear from the new norms of the progressive left. Whether or not Roberts’s accusations had merit, they materialized out of a societal role reversal—at least in certain quarters—in which the distinguished law professor emeritus is no longer given the benefit of any doubt.

Last fall, Dershowitz was invited to Johns Hopkins University to participate in a public discussion about the Arab-Israeli conflict. There, he was protested both by Students for Justice in Palestine and by Hopkins Feminists, whose members wore duct tape over their mouths and held signs that read, “You Are Rape Culture.” (The Sexual Assault Resource Unit, the Diverse Sexuality and Gender Alliance, the Black Student Union, and Voice for Choice merely petitioned against his presence on campus ahead of time.) Dershowitz has griped about the “intersectional” politics of the campus left. Here he was in its crosshairs. “When the [Epstein] accusations first came out, the first people who came after me were…the anti-Israel people,” Dershowitz says. “‘Oh, what Dershowitz did to young girls is what the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians.’”

On the contrary, Dershowitz says. “I’m a victim. That’s why I’m speaking out. I’m a victim.”

 

In early October, I drive to pick up Dershowitz at his apartment a few blocks south of the Queensboro Bridge. Our plan is to scoot across the East River and visit his childhood digs in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish enclave of Borough Park, Brooklyn. As he ducks into the passenger seat, Dershowitz begins fumbling apologetically with a tape recorder. At the behest of his lawyers, he has insisted on taping our conversations. “These guys are looking for an opportunity to sue me at any time,” he explains, both of our recording devices now turned on. “All you have to do is misunderstand one thing I say, and it could be a lawsuit.”

We get to Borough Park the day after Rosh Hashanah has ended. Per custom, Dershowitz greets passersby with a friendly “Shanah Tova.” Hasidic Jews, generally being indifferent to non-Hasidim, stare blankly and say nothing. He says, “It’s a very vibrant community. Good food, good Jewish food. It’s completely Hasidic in the sense that if I walk down the street in Manhattan, people stop me all the time. Oh, we know you. Here nobody knows me, because they don’t watch TV and they don’t read secular newspapers.” He considers this. “Some of them do know me. Because I’m on YouTube. And they can do YouTube.”

Dershowitz’s mother used to worry that her son’s success would be short-lived, that he would find himself banished back to the provinces. “She calls and pleads with me to stop already, to be friends with those in authority,” Dershowitz told a reporter more than 30 years ago. “She’s always talking about the ‘house of cards’ I’ve built for myself, how somebody will topple it by removing the bottom card…but I live in the United States of America. The worst thing that happens here is that people say nasty things about you.”

Now, even that has become too much to bear. With his tape recorder whirring, Dershowitz can’t help but launch into yet another attack against Edwards and Cassell, dredging up a case that was settled months ago. “The lawyers who filed this against me have real, real problems,” Dershowitz says, later adding, “I think Cassell is a zealot. I think he honestly believes that women who claim to have been raped would never in any circumstance lie. And Edwards is an opportunist.” After fretting that he would be sued once again for defamation, Dershowitz attempted to retract many of his most explosive allegations. Then, several days later, he called me and repeated them all over again.

Even if Dershowitz escapes another lawsuit, the imbroglio feels like a self-inflicted wound. “If Alan has any flaw, it is that he is sometimes too sensitive to what people are saying about him,” Harvey Silverglate says. “Alan has a lifelong history of going into overdrive for lesser accusations. I understood it, but I wish I could have talked him into being more calm.” More than one person I spoke to compared Dershowitz’s thin skin to that of a certain president-elect. “He has an unparalleled career,” Silverglate has said, “and somehow has the feeling he’s going to wake up one morning and find out it’s all gone, it was a dream.”

And so he’ll write Electile Dysfunction and he’ll trudge to Newsmax, unaware that he has nothing left to prove. So when he’s cast—by Roberts, or by campus protesters—as a member of the oppressor class, it seems to bewilder him. “As somebody who grew up in a poor Jewish background,” he says, “where we knew there were quotas to get into college, and knew we couldn’t get jobs at certain law firms, the idea that we’re ‘privileged,’ or that our children and grandchildren are ‘privileged,’ comes as something of a shock.”

Before I drive him back to his apartment, Dershowitz loans me a 1,039-page issue of the Albany Law Review devoted entirely to “Honoring the Scholarship and Work of Alan M. Dershowitz” and implores me to read it. Then, from the defense, one final appeal: “This is for you, another article. You’ll write a lot of articles. Some will be better, some will be worse. For me, what you say could have a major impact on my life. I’m just urging you, please be fair, please be careful.” He pleads: “It’s much more important for me than it is to you.”

 

Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a contributing editor at Boston magazine. He also wrote “The Ballad of Buddy Cianci” and “Nothing to Lose: Bill Weld’s Last Hurrah.”

Source URL: https://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/2016/12/11/alan-dershowitz/