William Kunstler's legacy

"Crispy Fries and Radical Causes"
by Julie Salamon
New York Times, June 7, 1995

Ronald L. Kuby's professional life has the pace and feel of a movie thriller. In his world, the cliches of the genre are real: there's always a reporter on the line, a fugitive client waiting in the wings, an attitude to be struck.

This high-wire activity takes place in the basement of a quaint Greenwich Village townhouse where Mr. Kuby works as the junior partner of William Kunstler, the civil rights lawyer who was defending clients like Daniel Berrigan and Lenny Bruce back when Mr. Kuby was in public school in Cleveland. The presence of Kunstler & Kuby is signified only by a tiny sign that says OFFICE.

So it wasn't all that unusual for the two lawyers to come in on a Saturday last month and find a message from Glenn Harris, the New York schoolteacher who had been traveling cross-country with a 15-year-old girl for two months. Mr. Harris had just learned from a tabloid televi sion program that he was the object of a nationwide manhunt, and he thought he needed a lawyer.

He didn't, however, leave his number.

Hoping he would try again, the lawyers changed their outgoing message, specifying when he should call. When he did, they urged him to return to New York from Las Vegas and to surrender to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

It's not surprising, then, that Mr. Kuby knows how to stage a phone call.

It was lunchtime when Mr. Kuby picked up the phone and dialed.

"This is Ron at No. 13," he said quietly but with authority. A pause, then, "Send me a cheeseburger, crispy fries -- and make sure the fries are crispy."

He put his hand on the mouthpiece to explain his emphasis on "crispy."

"I used to be a grill cook in Kansas, so I know crispy fries versus a sodden, translucent mass of potatoes and grease.

"Crispy," he said into the phone again before hanging up.

When the fries and burger arrived from the Waverly Restaurant a few minutes later, Mr. Kuby pulled the plastic lid off the aluminum container, picked up a fry, which was long and fat, and gave it a squeeze.

"Ah," he said. "Now these are french fries." He broke the fry in half and offered it for examination.

"Feel," he commanded. "See, they're nice inside. There's a little bit of oil still. If you don't crisp them up, just throw them in for a second, they're cooked in the sense that they can be eaten but they're greasy, lumpy. Everybody's had a big wad of those slimy fries all mushed together on your plate."

Mr. Kuby is a man who happily defies convention, embracing both the cholesterol and the radical causes that so many people of his generation (he's 38) have abandoned. "It is strange to be this young and an anachronism," said Mr. Kuby, a large, lively man with the wispy beard and long, wild hair of a 60's rebel and the impish face of a friendly chipmunk. "I'm like the Encyclopedia Britannica. You never really read it, you don't know anybody who's read it, but it's kind of nice to know it's there on the shelf if you actually need it."

Mr. Kunstler's celebrity, which some would call infamy, doesn't merely help publicize clients' causes -- it helps pay the bills. Since the majority of the partners' clients pay nothing or court-appointed rates, Mr. Kunstler's lecture fees and the residuals he receives from movie and television appearances are a significant source of income. But New York magazine recently recognized Mr. Kuby's growing prominence by inviting him to join Mr. Kunstler in a fashion shoot.

Mr. Kuby is careful not to make presumptuous comparisons between himself and his 75-year-old partner and mentor. When he discusses cases he tends to talk in the plural ("Bill and I thought," he often says).

And what do they think about their clients, who are frequently on the fringe of society and at the top of the news? They have included Colin Ferguson, accused of murdering 6 passengers and wounding 19 others on the Long Island Railroad, who dismissed Mr. Kunstler and Mr. Kuby for wanting him to plead insanity and was later convicted; Qubilah Shabazz, the daughter of Malcolm X who had been accused of plotting to kill Louis Farrakhan, and Siddig Ibrahim Siddig Ali and Ibrahim A. ElGabrowny in a terrorist conspiracy case linked to the World Trade Center bombing.

"The battles that Bill fought in the 60's are the same battles people have been fighting for hundreds of years and certainly are fighting now," Mr. Kuby said. "The struggle of the individual conscience versus group morality, the struggle of individual rights versus the notion of security and police power, the idea of human freedom against tyranny."

And where does the Glenn Harris case fall in this noble litany?

"There's no big civil rights angle," Mr. Kuby said, "just trying to do what needed to be done under the circumstances." The publicity wasn't bad, either. (Mr. Harris is charged with second-degree kidnapping. And this week the lawyers took the case of Janicelyn Mangual Santiago, a 24-year-old Bronx school aide who has been accused of having sex with a 14-year-old high school boy.)

Mr. Kuby has a tendency to speak to the crowd, even when he's sitting his little office, which opens directly into Mr. Kunstler's larger office; the kind of proximity a nervous parent might want with his child. Radiccal chic, in this case, is remarkably homey and surprisingly bourgeois. Yes, the client portraits come from political dissidents and residents on death row, but they are nicely arranged among Mr. Kuby's family pictures, the law school diploma and the large chalk rendering of Rufus, his late beloved dog. The antique Iamps are fussy; the flowered wallpaper matches the curtains.

Indeed, Mr. Kuby is something of a yuppie radical. He isn't married to his companion of nine years, with whom he has a child, but he refers to her as his wife. He keeps his ponytail but buys his suits at Barneys ("on sale," he said sheepishly).

He can sound like any successful lawyer in mid-career, testifying before bar association committees and talking to students, even at exclusive private schools. But ask him what he thinks of his former classmates at Cornell University Law School and he becomes the exclamatory militant. "Don't get all high and mighty when you sit around working for Oink, Porker & Swine, shuffling papers, making rich people richer, pounding your breast about how you represent the good people in society. Puh-leeze."

It is tempting to take a Freudian view of Mr. Kuby's association with Mr. Kunstler. After all, when Mr. Kunstler was defending leftist pariahs in the 1960's, Mr. Kuby's father was a radical, too -- working on behalf of Meir Kahane and the fledgling Jewish Defense League. Mr. Kuby's father and his father figure came together, in a way, four years ago, when Mr. Kunstler helped clear El Sayyid A. Nosair of charges that he assassinated Rabbi Kahane.

"I know how it appears," Mr. Kuby said in a rare moment of obvious discomfort. "But I try not to spend too much time being introspective; otherwise you end up paralyzed into inaction. I had a father -- Donald Kuby died in 1991 -- who was my father. And I have a fantastic teacher, mentor, one of the great civil rights figures of the century. I cared for them and care for them both very very much but in very different ways."

It was Donald Kuby who instilled an affinity for rebelliousness in his son. The elder Kuby was raised in a Catholic orphanage, then studied to be a Franciscan monk until he was expelled from the seminary.

He met Ruth Miller, who was Jewish, converted to Judaism and married her. She was moderate and stable and has worked as a secretary to this day. He was peripatetic, a salesman (not terribly successful) of everything from heavy truck equipment to turkeys -- and a sampler of dogmas and causes, ranging from the Jewish Defense League to Unity, whose tenets include a belief that there is no such thing as disease. "It was a bad theology to embrace when my father had cancer of the larynx," Mr. Kuby said.

After his parents divorced, when he was 5, Mr. Kuby lived with his mother, who mistrusted extremists of all stripes. But he was enamored of his father's passions and joined the Jewish Defense League when he was 13. He emigrated to Israel as a teen-ager but came home after just a few months because he became disillusioned with what he calls "anti-Arab racism."

Mr. Kuby spent a year working on a tugboat in the Virgin Islands after dropping out of college, and followed a girlfriend to Maine and then to Kansas, where he learned how to make crispy fries and went back to school at the University of Kansas. Along the way his radicalism moved leftward, and in 1982 he worked for Mr. Kunstler as a summer intern, then joined him as partner after finishing law school.

It may not be obvious, but he has mellowed. "I've come to recognize my mother was right about things she said with respect to extremists," he said, "and I think she's come to realize there are times when you have to take stands and take risks and makes sacrifices for values. That doesn't mean you have to do it every week. That doesn't mean that every cause that comes down the pike is the one you should die for or kill for, but the fact that not all of them are worthy of sacrifice doesn't mean that none of them are."


Document URL: http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/kunstler.html
Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:42:16 EDT