Richard Thompson Ford: NY Times Best Selling Author & Professor at Stanford Law School

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Richard Thompson Ford teaches Employment Discrimination, Comparative Equality Law, Critical Legal Theory and Local Government Law at Stanford Law School.  He has written about civil rights and race relations for the New York Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor and Slate and has appeared on many national television and radio programs including The Colbert Report, The Rachel Maddow Show and The Dylan Rattigan Show.  He is the author of two New York Times Notable books: The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse and Rights Gone Wrong: how law corrupts the struggle for equality.

What do you do best?

I write and teach about how law affects everyday life: how ideals of human rights and Constitutional rights actually make day to day life better—and sometimes worse—for average people.  There’s a lot written and said about Constitutional law—where elite jurists in marble courtrooms debate Big Ideas—but I find it more interesting to study things like local government law and laws regulating attire and grooming (my current project.)  My approach is to see how the Big Ideas work out on the streets and in the bricks and mortar houses where people live.  I’m interested in the way the idealism of law collides with everyday life: I explore the limits of legal justice the hidden promise in the quotidian.

What makes you the best?

I make tough questions easy to understand (if not to answer) and weighty topics fun by using compelling real world stories to illustrate legal and ethical problems.  My work combines “theory”—jurisprudence, philosophy, literary criticism, sociology and anthropology—with story telling: the theory provides structure and insight and the journalistic form makes it compelling and accessible.

What are your aspirations?

I’d like to offer new ideas and insights to a diverse group of people: lawyers, judges and scholars, but also artists, politicians, business people and engaged citizens of the world.  I also hope to address ideologically contentious issues with sensitivity and open mindedness—I don’t want to just “preach to the choir” by writing only for people who agree with me (and in fact my own views tend to ideologically eclectic—some are quite liberal—even radical—and others strike many readers as conservative, so perhaps there is no choir I could preach to).  I’d like to think good ideas, compelling storytelling and sound arguments can transcend ideological divisions, or make them irrelevant.

Biggest Success?

My first trade book, The Race Card, was a critical success: it received great reviews almost everywhere it was covered and it appealed to people of very different political stripes: for instance, reviews in both The Nation and The National Review were positive—I think this may be a first.

Most Challenging Moment?

Appearing on the Colbert Report. I loved to see him make fools of the high and mighty but was, of course, petrified when it was my turn to be grilled by this master satirist.

Favorite Motto?

Know more than you say—not the reverse.

Favorite People?

My wife, kids, family and close friends, but of course that means nothing to those who don’t know them.  As far as famous people go, the trouble here is distinguishing people I like from those I admire or think are virtuous.  The candidates for most virtuous are probably obvious: Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Thurgood Marshall, Abraham Lincoln, Ella Baker, F.D.R..  Those I like most are not all virtuous and self-sacrificing but they are all insightful, intellectually courageous or witty: George Orwell, James Baldwin, Susan Sontag, Michel Foucault, Christopher Hitchens, Dorothy Parker, Ian Fleming, Miles Davis, Pablo Picasso.  Here, I am not choosing my favorite artists (though some are) nor people of great virtue (ditto) but people who seemed to have a talent for joie de vivre and creativity without compromise.

Favorite Places?

Paris, London, New York City, Kauai (the north shore near Hanalei), Big Sur, Tuscany and of course San Francisco.

Favorite Products?

Products, as a rule, don’t excite me, but craft and care do.  I enjoy (but can’t often afford) Isaia and Luciano Barbera’s tailored clothing and John Lobb shoes.  I’m a bit of an amateur mixologist and I like many of the craft spirits coming out: Sacred Gin from London and most anything from St George’s in Alameda, California. But many of the larger brands also turn out a consistently excellent product: Crown Royal Rye is the steal of the decade, Tanqueray’s master distiller is a wizard (try their limited edition Bloomsbury Gin) and my go-to for martinis remains Bombay Sapphire.

Current Passions?

The history of clothing and fashion: I am currently working on a book about Dress Codes and social norms surrounding attire and the research has been a real treat.  Here, I’m especially fond of the work of historian Anne Hollander, who writes about how art influenced clothing and vice versa.  French New Wave/ noir—especially the work of Jean–Pierre Melville.  Mid-century jazz (post bop but pre fusion).  The detective fiction of Andrea Camillieri.  Pre-prohibition cocktails and cocktail related paraphernalia (I have a collection of art deco barware and cocktail recipe books.)  Antique maps.