Back from the Shadows
New biography sheds better light on Swainson
August 16, 2010
Lawrence Glazer’s new book, Wounded Warrior (available in October from Michigan State University Press), is, surprisingly, the first published biography of John B. Swainson, Michigan state senator, lieutenant governor, governor and Supreme Court justice. To many, Swainson has been a tragic and disgraced figure. Convicted of perjury in a 1975 federal trial and stripped of his Supreme Court seat and law license, Swainson’s fall was as dramatic as his earlier rise swift in the Democratic Party. Glazer’s research, especially his painstaking reporting and analysis of Swainson’s trial, should rewrite history’s treatment of the man who faced so many obstacles in life and battled to overcome each one.
Dome Editor and Publisher T. Scott caught up with the retired circuit judge, legal advisor to Governor James J. Blanchard and assistant attorney general to talk about the book — Glazer’s first — and the work that went into it.
Dome: For anyone not familiar with John Swainson, what’s the one-minute version of his career?
Glazer: Working-class kid loses both legs in World War II, comes back home, goes through extensive rehabilitation, earns a law degree. He gets involved in politics and Democrats run him for the state Senate. He wins, becomes minority leader and then is tapped by Governor G. Mennen Williams to run for lieutenant governor. He wins. When Williams decides not to run for re-election in 1960, Swainson runs for governor and upsets a more experienced and better-known candidate in the Democratic primary. He wins in November. He loses his bid for re-election two years later against George Romney, practices law for a while, then gets back into politics by winning a seat on the Wayne County Circuit Court and then the Michigan Supreme Court.
Dome: And then things fall apart?
Glazer: As Swainson ponders a run for the U.S. Senate, a story breaks that a prison inmate claims he paid an intermediary $20,000 to give to Justice Swainson for a favorable outcome on his appeal. Swainson denies it, but a federal grand jury is called and indicts him for perjury and accepting a bribe. At trial the jury acquits him on the bribery charge but convicts him of perjury. Swainson’s felony conviction forces him off the Supreme Court and strips him of his law license. The conviction is affirmed on appeal and Swainson’s life hits bottom. In later life, Swainson is a changed man as he concentrates on Michigan history and regaining his dignity.
Dome: Let’s cut to the chase. Did John Swainson get what was coming to him, or did he get a raw deal?
Glazer: The book lays out the information, including new evidence I’ve uncovered, and I’ll let readers decide the answer to your question. But I will say this: his indictment for bribery was based almost entirely on the words of a person who never testified under oath, who was never cross-examined, and whose own lawyer told the jury he was lying. And on the perjury charge, his lawyer made some serious mistakes in the trial. Swainson was the victim of an extremely zealous prosecutor who saw corruption wherever he looked. And he put Swainson into what’s called a perjury trap as part of that process.
Dome: What’s the story behind the bribery allegation?
Glazer: While Swainson is a Wayne County circuit judge he makes friends with a lot of people. One of Swainson’s character flaws is that he’s very naive about people. He can’t discriminate between people who befriend him because they want something from him and those who befriend him because they like him. He meets a bail bondsman named Harvey Wish, and they remain friends while Swainson is on the Supreme Court.
The burglary of a jewelry store occurs in Adrian in the late 1960s. The three guys who commit it are captured within an hour. One of those guys is John Whalen, a professional burglar. His bail bondsman is Harvey Wish. John Whalen, as I discovered a little after that when I went to prosecute him, is also snitching on people to the FBI to try to remain out of prison.
Whalen’s attorney gets murdered and Whalen is now really desperate to stay out of prison, where he is certain he’ll be murdered. He loses his appeal of the burglary conviction in the Court of Appeals. Wish had told him that if he gave him money he could pay off the Court of Appeals and arrange a reversal, but Whalen went ahead with his attorney’s appeal. So then Wish says, “I’ve got friends on the Supreme Court, I can take care of you there.” Whalen says he’s interested, and then goes immediately to the FBI. Throughout Whalen’s whole adult life he’s playing people off against each other to try to remain free, and he’s amazingly successful. He snitched and ratted out dozens of people.
Dome: This is quite a back-story. What’s next?
Glazer: Eventually Wish tells Whalen that his contact on the Supreme Court is Justice Swainson. Whalen gives Wish $20,000…and eventually his conviction is reversed.
The FBI had wired Whalen, so when he would go to meet with Wish the FBI would record the conversation. On one or two occasions, Wish is talking with Swainson on the phone, or says he is, and they record that on Whalen’s wire. But they don’t tap anybody’s phone and they don’t get a search warrant, they rely on this third-party, hearsay evidence from Whalen.
The investigation becomes kind of dead in the water; they don’t really have much evidence. But in 1975 a new prosecutor arrives to run something called an Organized Crime Strike Force. The prosecutor’s name is Robert Ozer. He’s a very ambitious and very aggressive prosecutor. And he decides to get this thing off the ground, so he convenes a grand jury and subpoenas a bunch of witnesses, including Swainson.
Ozer sets what we call a perjury trap for Swainson, who has very little idea why he’s being called. He has heard a few things, because he has already been audited by the IRS, which conducts a forensic audit to see if it can find $20,000 extra, which it can’t find. And there’s no evidence and no one has ever seen Wish giving Swainson money.
Swainson is summoned before the grand jury and is asked all these questions: on a specific date two and a half years ago, did you have a telephone conversation with Harvey Wish on such-and-such subject? Swainson says “not that I recall” and “I don’t think so.” And then they ask him, “did you receive a television set from Harvey Wish?” and Swainson says no. And then there are one or two other questions they ask him, and Swainson says he either doesn’t remember or, in one case he says, “I don’t remember that but it could have happened.”
And then things get a little complicated. Swainson has retained not a criminal lawyer, but a civil lawyer, because he doesn’t want people to think he has anything to hide. This lawyer is a good lawyer, but he has no criminal experience. And so he has Swainson come back after his first day of grand jury testimony and read what’s obviously a prepared statement essentially saying, “well, now I admit that those things happened.” He doesn’t say anything about looking at his appointment books or talking with people who reminded him of these things. All he says is, “I admit that these things happened.”
It’s a terrible statement. But his lawyer is obviously helping him and trying to keep him from being indicted for perjury. Of course, it doesn’t work. Ozer gets an indictment for perjury and bribery. And we know how that comes out.
Dome: Yours is the first biography of the former governor. Why have historians largely ignored him?
I think that when historians look at state government figures as subjects for a book, they’re looking for someone they already have reason to believe is significant, like a George Romney or a Mennen Williams. They’re looking for somebody who had a significant impact on the state while governor. John Swainson didn’t have that impact. He faded from memory because of the way he ended his career. To people who are not real familiar with the story, all they remember is a former governor who was disgraced. And then, beyond that, he was convicted of DUI, because he started drinking a lot after he was forced off the court.
I should add that back in the late ’80s, a fellow named Bruce Getzen, who was a professor at a college in Michigan at the time, planned to write a biography of Swainson. He interviewed several people and had written a very good article, but he never wrote the book. I spoke with him and he was kind enough to give me copies of his notes.
Dome: What kind of governor was Swainson?
He was an activist. He wanted tax reform and he wanted civil rights reform, and he pushed very hard for both of them. But he had a very recalcitrant legislature. He also wanted adequate funding for mental health care. Those were the main three things he tried to get. He did make some progress on civil rights and got a little bit better funding for mental health. But on tax reform he failed, despite coming close.
Dome: Why wasn’t he able to achieve his goals as governor?
Glazer: He wasn’t that good at “being” governor. He wasn’t very good at shaping public opinion. He didn’t really know how to speak to the masses of people, which is kind of funny because he got into office with the support of all the labor unions, which represented the interests of working people. He was what we now call a policy wonk. Whenever he was talking about government, he talked like a policy wonk and just didn’t connect with people.
Dome: What made you suspect there was more to the Swainson story?
I had no idea whether he was guilty or not. But I thought it was a very poignant story and I was sort of dimly aware that Gov. Blanchard had helped him by appointing him to the Michigan History Commission. And I had seen Swainson at events. It was clear he had changed considerably. Instead of the big booming voice he used to have, he had a sort of raspy voice. He had turned into an historian. He had really changed a lot. I found that interesting. I wanted to look into it.
Dome: You did an article in 2005 for michigan lobbyist magazine (the forerunner of Dome) about your involvement as an assistant attorney general in the Whalen burglary case. Did that help propel you?
I did that article, and then I thought there’s probably more to this. I didn’t know if there was enough for a book, but there was probably enough for a long magazine article. So I started researching. Eventually it became a mission. I had this view, because of my life experience, that you may not be able to solve every mystery or problem in your life, but if you really are committed and willing to work at it for a long time, you can solve most things. I figured that if I followed this story and just kept digging, I could answer a lot of these questions about Swainson. And I think I pretty much did.
Dome: How long did you take to research and write this book?
It took three and half years of research and writing, and two years to publish. I discovered this was a wonderful story. The farther I went into researching it, the more interesting it became.
He’s an interesting guy. He had an interesting, unusual combination of characteristics. He was very funny and witty, self-deprecating, very intelligent, very dignified. In those respects, he was a lot like John F. Kennedy, who actually was very friendly to him — they got along well. But at the same time, he had some deficits. He could not discriminate between people who wanted to use him and people who were legitimate in their approaches to him. He was very naive in a lot of ways. To hire a civil attorney when everything in your life is at stake, that’s just mind-boggling.
Dome: Did he get bad advice?
Glazer: It was his idea.
Dome: Was there a moment in your research when you knew you were onto something important?
Glazer: You mean some kind of revelation? It was when I really started analyzing the trial, that’s when I knew there was something major there.
Dome: How did you go about researching Swainson’s life? What were your sources?
Glazer: I interviewed 43 or 44 people — I took the oldest ones first, for obvious reasons — and I copied the entire transcript of his trial, all 2,000 pages, using a digital camera and a tripod so I could put it on my hard drive.
I interviewed Frank Kelley, his friend; Dave Sparrow, one of his closest friends and an attorney; Alan Zemmol, his law partner; Joe Collins, who was his campaign manager in his gubernatorial races and later chairman of the party; his daughter and son-in-law several times. I found one surviving FBI agent and one surviving attorney for the prosecution. I interviewed his attorney, Conrad Kohl, twice. The prosecutor, Ozer, died just as I was starting this project. I interviewed Tom Brennan, who served on both the Wayne County Circuit Court and the Supreme Court with Swainson — it was a wonderful interview, a fantastic interview. Brennan was very frank — probably the best interview of the whole book. And I’m the first person to ever get Harvey Wish to talk about this case.
Dome: How did you do that?
Glazer: Finding Wish was a major effort. I finally tracked him down through property records and finding his daughter. Then I had to decide how to approach him, because I knew I was only going to get one shot. So I looked at his daughter’s background and found she was an educated person…and thought it might be worth it to talk with her first and explain what I was doing and let her get a feel for the kind of person I was.
I called her and we talked a couple of times. And I told her, “I would really like to interview your father, but I’m hesitant to call him and surprise him. At some point, would you be willing to talk to him and see if he would be willing to talk with me?” A couple weeks later she called me and said he was willing to talk with me. I called him a couple times by phone in Florida. He was, unfortunately, the only person I interviewed who was not willing to be recorded.
Dome: Did you try to find John Whalen?
Glazer: Whalen went into the witness protection program, and then, I’m told, he left. And I considered trying to find him, but if you read the book, you’ll see that Whalen has no credibility in anything he says to anyone. And Whalen isn’t really a witness to anything. With respect to the alleged bribery, all he knows is what Wish is telling him. So it just wouldn’t have been worth the effort to find him.
Dome: What was your biggest surprise?
Glazer: How naive John Swainson was. A lot of politicians are pretty cynical about people and their motives — that’s what experience teaches them. He wasn’t like that. He thought everybody had good motives and was acting in good faith. I can’t explain it, that’s the way he was.
Dome: Any other surprises?
Glazer: One of the surprises, and one of the most enjoyable things, was that you get so familiar with a situation that you say to yourself, “I think this particular thing must have happened. I haven’t found any evidence of it yet, but it’s got to be there somewhere.” And then one day, by God, you find it! That was fun. That was probably the most enjoyable aspect.
For example, I knew Kennedy really liked Swainson — he campaigned for him for re-election against the advice of his own staff — and I couldn’t understand why Kennedy didn’t offer Swainson a job. He must have, but none of his friends or family knew of any offer. I finally found one in a document in the JFK Library (I didn’t go there in person; they have a very good index and you can call and talk to one of their librarians, and you get the documents by mail). Kennedy did make him an offer. There were a lot of things like that. The detective part is fun. I really loved that.
Dome: Aside from the trial, what have you added to Swainson’s legacy?
Glazer: There are many things I discovered that not even his family or closest friends knew about. Many things. Mostly good and some not so good. It was no secret that John had an eye for the ladies. His family and close friends knew it, so that’s no big shock to them. I don’t go into much detail about that in the book. But I found a lot of other things.
Whenever he would learn that somebody had had an accident and lost a limb, he would go see that person, unannounced, no publicity. He felt he had benefited greatly [during the war] from being with a bunch of other guys who were amputees. They were guys who got there before him, and they were farther along in their rehab and he could look at them and see that it could be done. And they would kind of prod you to get moving and get off your ass.
He knew that most people who get grievously injured were not in that kind of environment; they were alone. And he felt it was important that they have a role model. “Look at me,” he would say. “This happened to me and here I am, I’m governor of Michigan (or I’m a Supreme Court justice).” He would tell people, “if you want, you can just do nothing and feel sorry for yourself, and society will take care of you. Or you can get up and start this arduous task and really achieve something — and you’ll find that it’s not a handicap at all.” He would challenge them. He did that for a lot of people.
Dome: What was your biggest disappointment?
Glazer: That some people died before I could interview them, after I found out they were related to the story. And Swainson died in 1994. I don’t remember ever talking to him. It’s possible we said hello at some event. But I never had a conversation with him, much to my regret. And I never met [his wife] Alice. She died just before I started this project.
Dome: You said you loved the detective work. How about the actual writing?
Glazer: The writing is, well, you know how it is. I would do this a chapter at a time, not in chronological order. It was just agony starting a chapter. For about two days I would have to force myself. And then it starts to flow. And then for the rest of the chapter I couldn’t wait to get back to the computer to keep writing. I would take about five days off after completing a chapter.
I’ll never forget the day I finished writing the book. I had euphoria — there probably are drugs you can buy illegally that make you feel that good. Boy was that good.
Dome: Is Swainson a sympathetic character?
Yes…Yes…Yes. It would have been fun to have a beer with him — and a lot of people did.
This is a life story about recovery, about coming back from terrible wounds. In the first case, from physical wounds. In the second case, from psychic wounds. In Swainson’s opinion, the latter was much worse than the former. He went from a respected figure with important work to do to a guy without a job, who was disgraced. He hit bottom, he definitely hit bottom. But he came back. He didn’t quit, and eventually he came back.
It’s about perseverance; it’s about fortitude — all those little clichés they have. But they’re true. You can come back from a terrible loss. And John did that. Twice.
Dome: So you see him as a positive figure, not someone who should be hiding in history’s shadows?
Glazer: He’s a very positive figure. I want people to know his story.