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Rose Bird Battles the Ignorant Mob

July 13, 1986|WILLIAM KAHRL | William Kahrl is a frequent contributor from Sacramento.

Following the career of Rose Bird is a lot like watching a train wreck. Even though you know what's going to happen, the event sustains its own unhealthy fascination.

After the June primary, Bird's campaign for reconfirmation as chief justice entered what many probably regard as its terminal phase. But what it has really achieved is an apotheosis. The chief justice doesn't seem to be running for public office any longer. She's campaigning for canonization.

I first realized this transmogrification watching a segment of ABC News' "Nightline" that dealt with the Bird campaign on the same night as the primary election in California. Here was Bird as she wishes now to be seen and remembered.

The approach throughout was reverential. The introductory segment reviewing the campaign carried the news (startling to anyone in California) that Bird's opponents are all "vicious," and that within the legal profession she is regarded as one of the most distinguished jurists in our history.

In the interview that followed, the chief justice did not, of course, demean herself by appearing with any of her critics. And the interviewer, Ted Koppel, who is usually adept at puncturing pomposity in all its forms, spoke exclusively in hushed tones of awe. His idea of tough questioning ran to things like when she should be added as a new chapter to "Profiles in Courage."

Though it was the kind of performance that makes conservatives gnash their teeth over liberal media conspiracies, I don't really blame Koppel. His brain tends to turn to mush whenever he interviews purposeful women, whether it is Corazon Aquino or Anne Burford. I suspect his problem is just that he was too well brought up.

The production as a whole, however, reduced the complexities of this most tortuous of campaigns into a simple case of us against them--the children of light gathered around the chief justice's robes versus the ignorant forces of darkness welling up all around. That kind of characterization is bound to ring a little flat in California, where, according to the polls, 70% of us is them.

But "Nightline" isn't intended for consumption only in the Golden State. And part of the attraction of the topic for Koppel and crew seemed to be the opportunity to point up once again the differences between the civilized East and us primitives out here on the Pacific who haven't any respect for the established institutions of government like an independent judiciary.

This vision of Rose Bird transcended, pilloried by the ignorant mob, seems now to be the central focus of what remains for her campaign.

From the beginning, her defenders have tried to deflect criticism of the chief justice by arguing that her defeat would threaten the judiciary as a whole. The same people who sneered when Richard Nixon argued that he shouldn't be thrown out of office for fear of weakening the office itself have had no difficulty adopting the same argument on Bird's behalf.

But as the primary revealed, the anti-Bird campaign hasn't got what the movie people call legs. Those who campaigned for office on the basis of their hostility to Bird--Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich being the most prominent example--fell by the wayside. Efforts to tar opponents with an alleged affinity for the chief justice similarly came a cropper. And the public's overwhelming opposition to her does not seem currently to extend to the other judges also standing for election in November.

That's bad news for the conservative ideologues who dreamed of building their campaign against Bird into a general movement. But it's even worse for Bird and her cohorts, because it takes away their last argument for why anyone should pump campaign dollars into what now seems to be not only a hopeless cause but also an increasingly insubstantial one.

For the chief justice herself, however, I wonder if that is truly such a bad thing. There is a certain quality about her public career that has always recalled for me a cartoon that Charles Addams drew for the New Yorker in 1948 when the film "Joan of Arc" was all the rage. It showed some little boys who had erected a stake in their backyard and were piling up branches around it. One of them is calling to a little girl in the next yard, "Come on over, Cynthia. You can be Ingrid Bergman."

That passion for dramatic confrontation was evident in all the tiresome battles over turf that Bird fought when she served in the Brown Administration. We saw it working at full force as she led the Supreme Court into its most humiliating hour when the justices themselves were put up for a kind of public trial on the question of whether their decisions had been delayed for political purposes. And it is a theme that might be picked out of her writing on the bench, most notably her dissent in the case regarding strikes by public employees, in which she quite extraordinarily appropriated for herself the mantle of the Solidarity movement.

In this, her last great trial in the court of public opinion, Bird has waged her campaign as though the voters had no choice except to support her. She has refused to mount a defense, disdaining any descent into the hurly-burly of ordinary politics. Her supporters, meanwhile have sought to proscribe any grounds for the prosecution, contending variously that it is unfair for the electorate to examine either her personal qualities, her individual decisions on the court or their consequences for society.

Now that it is apparent that the vote will go against her, she has, in the manner of all the great martyrs of history, essentially denied the validity of this earthly court to judge her. In portraying herself as the supremely innocent servant of higher ideals, she has drawn the entire fabric of controversy around herself, subordinating the issues to her own ego. The only remaining object of her campaign is defeat--glorious, ennobling and self-righteous.

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