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Before he became one of the longest-serving Supreme Court justices in American history, Byron R. White was Whizzer White: one of the last of the great scholar-athletes and an authentic American hero. Born to near-poverty, he became a college football sensation at the University of Colorado, carrying his obscure team to the Cotton Bowl and earning the nickname that he always detested but could never quite shake. He went on to become a Rhodes scholar, one of the most accomplished students in the history of Yale Law School, and then a pro football star. In 1938, still the ragtag days of football, he was the highest-paid player in the sport's history.
A World War II hero, he served with John E Kennedy and wrote the official naval intelligence report on the sinking of Kennedy's PT-109. Seventeen years later he helped run Kennedy's campaign for the presidency and in 1961 was named deputy attorney general. He was Robert Kennedy's right-hand man, providing on-the-spot management of protection for the Freedom Riders in Alabama in the spring of 1961, running the Justice Department when the attorney general was needed at the White House, and overseeing the appointment of more than one hundred federal judges. In 1962 President Kennedy nominated White to the Supreme Court, calling him "the ideal New Frontier judge."
White's early years of fame had left their mark. He had tasted celebrity and knew both its emptiness and its distraction. As a judge, he avoided publicity and wrote opinions unsympathetic to the media, which guaranteed unfavorable reviews in the press. He even shunned displays of virtuosity in his legal writing. Yet his impact on the Court and American law has been enormous.
He resisted tides of fashionable opinion, dissenting from much of the activism of the Warren Court, dissenting famously in Miranda v. Arizona and later in Roe v. Wade, and consistently holding to a model of judging that decided cases narrowly and avoided doctrinaire opinions.
The Man Who Once Was Whizzer White is based on dozens of archives and nearly two hundred interviews, including those with approximately half of White's former law clerks and with all of his principal colleagues in the Kennedy administration. For White's Court years, the book uses three key terms -- 1971, 1981, and 1991 -- to reveal detailed operations of the Supreme Court and White's often publicly invisible impact on the institution. The result is a biography that is fast-paced and rich, an achievement that brings both of Byron White's identities into a single, fascinating whole.
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: White, Byron R, , 1917-Judges United States Biography, United States, Supreme Court Biography