By Steve Thorpe
Was disgraced former Michigan Governor and Supreme Court Justice John Swainson a hero or a villain?
Neither, says the author of a recent biography.
"He certainly wasn't a villain. Swainson was a man of great gifts and, unfortunately, some major flaws, too," said Lawrence Glazer in an interview about his book "Wounded Warrior: The Rise and Fall of Michigan Governor John Swainson."
Glazer was the keynote speaker at the Annual Membership Luncheon of the Michigan Supreme Court Historical Society held Thursday at the Detroit Athletic Club.
The sort of polarized passions that Swainson can stir were on display as Chief Justice Robert P. Young, Jr., in his remarks early in the luncheon program, said "Swainson represents a very sad and disturbing chapter in the court's history, one that we pray will never recur. The matter was one of the court's most nightmarish moments."
Author Glazer, in his keynote talk, portrayed him as more of a naïve truster and poor judge of character.
As a young soldier serving in Europe in World War II, Swainson lost both his legs below the knee when his Jeep hit a landmine. After a long, difficult rehabilitation, he launched a political career that saw him, after a stint in the State Senate, become in 1961 Michigan's youngest governor since Stevens T. Mason.
Defeated by George Romney two years later, Swainson regained the bright public spotlight he loved when he was elected to the Michigan Supreme Court in 1970, becoming the rare public servant who served in the legislative, judicial and executive branches of state government.
It all came tumbling down when in 1975 Swainson was indicted on federal bribery and perjury charges and was eventually convicted of lying to a grand jury. Forced out of the Supreme Court and disbarred, Swainson began a long spiral into depression and alchoholism.
So why a biography of Swainson, and why now?
"He had a very dramatic life and it hadn't been written about before," Glazer said. "Swainson was, frankly, in danger of being forgotten and deserves to be remembered."
Glazer believes that it wasn't Swainson's terrible wounds that steered him to public life, but the lengthy rehabilitation that followed.
"He was sent to Percy Jones Hospital in Battle Creek, which was at that time the largest rehabilitation hospital in the country," Glazer said. "There he saw that other people had survived similar experiences and had gone on to lead normal lives. He found that he could do what they had done, which was a tremendous boost to his confidence."
Swainson also found that his fellow patients changed his views on just what "the public" was and what their issues were.
"He also met people of a kind he had never met before," Glazer said. "Racial minorities ... Japanese-Americans, African-Americans, who he learned had very different life experiences than his, producing very different expectations. He felt that was not fair. All those things were great influences on him for the rest of his life."
Once he became a public figure, Swainson made himself vulnerable to suspicion of wrongdoing because of some of his associations with unsavory characters. He never seemed to develop the sixth sense that public figures and celebrities must have about individuals who are "bad news."
One of those individuals was notorious Detroit bail bondsman Harvey Wish, who managed to strike up a friendship with Swainson. It was that association that led to incidents that brought Swainson down, including witnesses seeing Wish place a television set in the trunk of Swainson's car.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Ozer, who pursued Swainson, has a reputation as an ambitious zealot and was eventually fired in 1976. But the evidence he managed to gather on Swainson was damning.
"Mr. Ozer, the prosecutor, was extremely aggressive and set what we call a 'perjury trap' for Swainson, by subpoenaing him," Glazer said. "The Justice Department doesn't do that anymore. It's now against their policy to subpoena the target of a grand jury. In those days it was permissible, but it was still pretty rare. He asked him a whole bunch of very specific questions about conversations and events that had happened two and a half years earlier. Swainson had no opportunity to prepare for that and had no idea what he would be asked."
Despite the investigation, Swainson might have survived if he hadn't made some remarkably poor choices about his defense.
"He purposely chose a lawyer with no criminal law experience, because he didn't want people to think he had anything to hide," Glazer said. "The lawyer was a very good lawyer, but he had no experience with grand juries."
Although Swainson was acquitted of the bribery charges, a jury convicted him on three counts of perjury and he served two months in a federal halfway house, effectively ending his public service career.
When he later had problems with alcohol and, some said, drugs, many were quick to point to his war experiences and terrible wounding as possible causes. After all his research, Glazer disagrees.
"I doubt that much of it was from his war experience," Glazer said. "He was put in a terrible situation. He himself said that the loss of his reputation was much harder on him than the loss of his legs. When he lost his legs, there were many people who were supportive and regarded him as a hero. But when he lost his reputation, he became a pariah. That in itself was enough to push him into abusing alcohol."
Swainson died in 1994, a nearly forgotten chapter in state history.
Published: Mon, Apr 23, 2012