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Biography was a `mountainous’ project

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Juan Williams has been a journalist for the Washington Post for 21 years. That means he is accustomed to what he calls "short-term projects." So when he decided to write a biography of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first black ever to sit on the court, he had the feeling he might never finish.

"It was sort of mountainous to me," says Williams. "For the longest time, I felt like I was under a burden. Now that it's done, it feels great!"That doesn't mean he is considering jumping permanently from journalism to history, although he has noticed several respected authors, such as Martin Luther King's biographer, Taylor Branch, started as journalists and never went back.

Not in his case.

"I would hope to combine journalism and history. Someone said, `Newspapers are a first draft of history,' giving you a sense of the contemporary and the depth of historical analysis."

Williams began his own project in 1991 when Marshall retired from the court. Steadily enthralled by his study of Marshall, Williams considers him "one of the greatest figures of the 20th century. I thought I might be tired of him after working on the book for eight years, but I'm not."

Even early in his research, Williams could see that Marshall was a man who had been "underappreciated" for his accomplishments. In his final years on the court, he often seemed "an old man, embittered because the court was moving to the right. From black America's perspective, he was no Martin Luther King Jr. Some even thought he was an Uncle Tom."

Williams was convinced of the importance of changing that image. "I hope that people will understand there is a record here of incredible accomplishment. To take the Constitution and say it can be read so expansively as to allow for affirmative action was a very controversial and revolutionary idea that we are still fighting about."

At the same time, Williams freely acknowledges Marshall's flaws, the greatest of which was drinking, "because at various times it made him turn away from people and also led people to talk about him as a drinker."

Marshall's womanizing was more complicated, according to Williams. His youth was rather wild, then when he settled down and got married, he and his wife had severe disagreements. His travel in connection with his civil rights cases lead to extra-marital relationships.

Williams is distressed that Marshall's competence was questioned when he was nominated to be a federal judge, then again when he was nominated to be solicitor general. In Williams' opinion, it was a bad rap, pinned to the incorrect rumors that he was lazy.

Williams says the 1979 publication of Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong's book on the Supreme Court, "The Brethren," cultivated a false image of Marshall as lazy. "The book," says Williams, "was a particularly harsh and critical snapshot, and it really hurt Marshall."

Toward the end of his life, says Williams, Marshall was especially surprised by all the attention in the media devoted to both Malcolm X and King. "He used to say, `What did Malcolm X ever DO? What laws did he ever change? When did he ever take the brunt of a firehose?' When King came on the scene in 1955 in Montgomery, Ala., Marshall had been in the vineyards for 20 years."

Although Marshall was distressed by George Bush's nomination of conservative Clarence Thomas to replace him on the court, he was outraged by the public circus of TV hearings that followed.

In sympathy for Thomas, he believed that if his own confirmation hearings had been televised, including false charges that his civil rights cases had communist connections, he never would have won a seat on the court.