THE BLOG
10/21/2014 04:09 pm ET Updated Dec 21, 2014

Fred Levin and the Big Fist Fight

BenBella Books

Q: What do you get when you package boundless idealism with ruthless, cunning and manic energy in a consummate political operator? A: A wily lawyer, who writes, passes and then enforces the law that brings the tobacco industry to its knees and makes himself a fortune in the process!

It's a safe bet that Fred Levin would have loved justice and despised bullies whether or not he grew up the target of oppression by bigots. Odds are that Levin, with his gift for visionary strategic discipline, would have made himself a millionaire regardless of the circumstances of his birth. But his new biography leaves little doubt that Levin's boyhood as a scapegoat for intense southern style anti-Semitism cemented the bull-headed determination that has made him a modern day Robin Hood; a merciless scourge to the smug and powerful and the fearless champion for ordinary Americans.

In And Give Up Showbiz? is New York Times bestselling author, Josh Young's chronicle of the extraordinary life of one of America's leading trial lawyers and world class backroom social activists. Fred Levin grew up in a small, southern, bible-belt town, where die-hard slave state bigots first tormented him at school and later excluded him from the country club, the centerpiece of social life and commerce. College fraternities and Dixie's prestigious corporate law firms refused him entry because of his religion. Levin met this hatred with a strong contrarian personality and a score to settle against the clubby "elite, white, men". He saw how they used privilege to break the rules, call the shots, evade the consequences of their cruelty and make themselves rich by impoverishing, diminishing and humiliating people outside their tidy social circles.

Not surprisingly, Levin's initial battles were rooted in civil rights. Years before the Civil Rights Movement, Levin defied popular convention and amplified his social ostracism when he flaunted his friendship with the first African American to enter a Florida public university. As a young lawyer, he compounded his notoriety as a troublemaker by unsuccessfully nominating the first African American to be a member of the local Bar Association. His early civil rights commitment made him one of only three Americans to be named Chief of Ghana and earned him recognition and awards by the United Nations, and by the United States Black Congressional Caucus for his lifetime work on behalf of minorities. In the 1970's and 1980's, when it was far from fashionable even in liberal circles, Levin openly defended the rights of homosexuals.

As a successful young professional injury lawyer on Florida's redneck Riviera, Levin made himself an eager student of the kind of political maneuvering that would allow him to snake his way through small holes in the big doors that had always been closed to him. As comfortable in Tallahassee's smoke filled rooms as a water moccasin in Lake Okeechobee, Levin used his smarts, social skills and keen tactical mind to, out-hack the most seasoned and cynical political hacks in Florida's seedy state capital. Levin, that rare legislative sausage maker of high and noble purpose, repeatedly bested the sharpest corporate lobbyists and industry toadies at their own game. Again and again Levin outsmarted the swankiest top shelf bullying political operatives from Big Tobacco, Big Pharma, Big Oil and Industrial Agriculture with trickery, guile and power politics in the pursuit of social justice and democratic reform. His revenge was all the sweeter because he made himself rich by serving the public interest.

Levin's greatest contribution to America's health, welfare and democracy was his clandestine scheme to devise, and deftly marshal to passage, a law allowing the state of Florida to sue the tobacco industry to recover Medicaid expenses for smoking related injuries to its indigent citizens. Before Fred Levin appeared on the scene, the cigarette industry was killing one of four of its customers and avoiding liability by investing heavily in cozy relations with powerful legislators in every state. Big Tobacco's elected political lackeys showed their gratitude by protecting the industry from its victims with a dazzling menu of shield legislation.

To manage and safeguard their political investments, cigarette makers assembled the most cunning and devious lobbyists, soulless white shoe law firms, armies of avaricious "junk" scientists and the slickest PR firms since Goebbel's propaganda machine helped build the Third Reich. The fiendish chicanery of these mercenary miscreants protected the tobacco pushers from regulators and from millions of disease ravaged and dying smokers for 60 years.

Levin's deft legislative legal maneuvers finally breached the smoking industry's impenetrable legal fortifications and turned Big Tobacco on its head. John Banahaf, Executive Director of Action on Smoking, crowed at its passage that the "Levin Law" had permanently upended "the financial life of the tobacco industry." Professor Richard Daynard of Northeastern University called Levin's bill "the single biggest blow against the tobacco industry and for the public health, that's ever been done in the United States." When the Supreme Court upheld Levin's law, the tobacco industry settled the state of Florida's claim for $13 billion. Within a few years, Levin's ingenuity cost the industry $200 billion nationwide, as other states mimicked his strategies. Tobacco companies also agreed to universal changes in their advertising including the cessation of all marketing to children. Today Levin's Law saves upwards of 100,000 American lives each year.

Young's book is no hagiography. He describes Levin as a vessel of clashing impulses. The Fred Levin he portrays is driven by complex motivations and Young faults him for his knack for making money on chivalry. Young concludes that "lawyers of Fred Levin's caliber can be heroes, yet vulgar. Their actions often are motivated by immense financial incentive, but also result in colossal societal health benefits that could not be attained without them. They can be self-absorbed and egomaniacal, but at the same time unusually empathetic." The question that lingers, as we marvel at Levin's brazen antics, is whether authentic social change in today's money sodden democracy requires a clever man like Levin - part idealist, part rogue -- who is willing to use the most underhanded tactics of his opponents to achieve a net social benefit.

Levin transformed his least admirable liabilities -- his willingness to slip on the brass knuckles and ruin his opponents' reputations and businesses -- into assets for all of us. Levin's bellicose scheming has made him an effective public gladiator not just against Big Tobacco, but a long parade of corporate villains who comprise the apocalyptical forces of ignorance and greed. "Without question", concludes Young, "men like Levin, willing to go blow for blow with the fat cats have been historically needed to preserve and protect individual liberties and freedom, and to promote universal safety improvements in all facets of commercial life."

Levin has emerged as one of the great warriors against the tsunami corporate money that is, today, subverting American values, robbing Americans of our dignity, suffocating our rights and transforming our model democracy into a corporate kleptocracy.

While success and money tend to mellow and co-opt some activists, each success served to make Fred Levin more ornery and defiant. He used his growing fortune to launch his own primetime television station as a medium for calling out the plutocrats.

Levin's outspoken and often outrageous personality didn't sit well with the corporate power brokers and social elites. The more successful he became, the more he antagonized the big shots. He reveled in their discomfort. Predictably, the establishment fought back. The Florida Bar, under the sway of old school Confederates prosecuted him twice and falsely charged Levin at least two other times in efforts to disbar him. His powerful enemies prompted two investigations of Levin for patently scurrilous murder charges. As Levin's personal injury career exploded, the Bourbon dominated Florida Legislature and Bar Association repeatedly tried to limit his practice. Critics went berserk when the University of Florida named its law school for Fred Levin -- the final insult to his adversaries and the crowning garland to his unlikely triumph over them.

In the end, Levin won, and won big. He earned a $300 million fee on the tobacco litigation. He is one of a handful of American trial lawyers who have been inducted into the Trial Lawyers Hall of Fame alongside Clarence Darrow and Louis Nizer. (He is also in the Boxing Hall of Fame having promoted the only boxer in more than 100 years to win the middleweight and heavyweight championships of the world, but that's a whole other story.) The punch line is that Fred Levin has done well by doing good, and -- luckily for the rest of us -- he remains willing to risk all of his winnings on his capacity to force America to live up to all her ideals.