Stephen Buehl was in a department store with his boss, California Chief Justice Rose Bird, helping her shop for a sweater for her mother. Buehl held up a blue one, reminding Bird that it was a color her mother especially liked.
Earlier in the day, at another store, Bird had helped Buehl pick out a piece of jewelry for his mother.
Buehl, a 39-year-old graduate of Yale University and Stanford Law School, has worked for Bird for 11 years, throughout her career in state government. He is Bird's executive assistant, but his title does not begin to capture the dimensions of his job.
A combination of adviser, aide-de-camp and bodyguard, Buehl screens Bird's telephone calls, travels with her, carries her tickets and money, and scours menus to make sure restaurants can accommodate the vegetarian diet the chief justice has followed since recovering from her last bout with cancer. Recently, Buehl began martial-arts training to be ready for any physical attack that might be made on his boss.
Buehl has weathered the torrent of abuse that has come with the job of serving the most embattled public figure in the state, including, Bird says, being ridiculed as being to her what H. R. Haldeman was to former President Richard M. Nixon.
Buehl's job was tough from the start. When Bird established a chilly distance between herself and popular senior members of the Supreme Court's permanent staff, Buehl became the man people had to go through to see the chief. His presence came to symbolize a new regime that many believed marked the end of the court's long reputation for collegiality.
Where Bird's amiable predecessor, the late Donald R. Wright, wandered the halls, chatting with secretaries and dropping in on subordinates, Bird stayed behind locked doors. To see her, it was not only necessary to see Buehl first but to endure his presence in the meeting as he took down every word of conversation with the chief justice.
Bird's relationships with the people around her are said to have improved greatly in the last few years, but the system she set up remains basically the same. Buehl is still the gatekeeper and the note taker.
He does his job with the aplomb of a military adjutant, earnestly apologizing when the chief justice cannot honor a request, rarely responding to anger with harsh words of his own.
"Of all the people who have worked for Bird, and she has had a number of very loyal employees, Buehl has tried hardest and longest to hold himself to the same exacting standards of hard work and principled conduct that Bird requires of herself," says a former member of Bird's staff.
Still, Buehl manages to keep a sense of humor about himself and the rigors of his job.
At dinner one evening with Bird and a group of friends, he was asked good-naturedly whether he ever unwinds.
"Oh, yes," Buehl replied, laughing. At the end of a typical 12-hour workday that finishes up with karate training in a San Francisco gym, he said, he goes home and reads Spiderman comic books.
Then, growing serious again, Buehl assured his listeners that his taste in bedtime reading does not clash with his boss's well-known disapproval of macho behavior.
Spiderman, said Buehl, resorts to force only after exhausting all other alternatives.