Rose Elizabeth Bird, voted out as California's chief justice by a wide margin in 1986, sparked lots of reaction from viewers in her debut as a television news commentator, even though she stuck to safe, seemingly non-controversial topics in her first two appearances.
Appearing on ABC affiliated stations in San Francisco and Los Angeles, Bird, 51, prompted dozens of telephone calls from viewers, according to station executives. But Bird's remarks failed to live up to advertisements by KABC-TV in Los Angeles, which billed her as "the most controversial woman in California."
On Friday, she delivered an earnest message of hope to cancer victims. Her Thursday debut was rhyming verse decrying the internment of Japanese-Americans 46 years ago during World War II.
Bird said in an interview Friday that she hopes the twice-a-week commentaries will continue. She taped the comments at the studios of KGO-TV in San Francisco, near her home in Palo Alto. They were also broadcast at KABC-TV, and the former chief justcie is expected to tape some of her appearances at the Los Angeles station in the future.
In the Friday commentary, Bird cited statistics that one in 11 women will contract breast cancer. The disease "makes you face the facts of your own mortality and what you have done with your life," Bird said, adding that cancer is not a "hopeless situation," but rather "an opportunity to find out about life." Bird has twice had surgery for breast cancer.
On Thursday, she treated television viewers to verse she had written years earlier about the Japanese-American internment:
Remember when justice was once ruled by fear?
Remember when freedom was clear your right,
Provided you proved that your skin was pure white?
'I've never seen rhyming commentary before. It's a novel approach," said Erik Sorenson, news director at competing KCBS-TV in Los Angeles.
After Friday's comments, Sorenson said, "I was very disappointed because nothing she said rhymed." Both commentaries, he added, were "like coming out against sin."
Despite the nature of Bird's commentary, many callers were incensed at her appearance. At San Francisco's KGO-TV, 21 of the 29 calls logged Thursday night were negative, station publicist Leslie Jones said. The response improved Friday morning when calls were 65-55 in favor of Bird's new role.
Negative Phone Calls
Within a half-hour of Friday's 6 p.m. broadcast, KGO-TV received about 35 calls, nearly all of them negative. An employee who was answering the phone at the station said many of the callers said, in effect, "I can't believe she's on TV."
"We got a lot of phone calls and a lot of mail, both positive and negative," said John Severino, general manager at KABC-TV in Los Angeles. He declined to say how many calls were recorded, or how many were for or against Bird, but said the response was "far in excess" of what the station usually received.
Bird served as chief justice from 1977, when she was appointed by then Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. She barely retained her seat in the 1978 election but was defeated by a margin of 2 to 1 in 1986.
In her opening comments on Thursday in San Francisco, Bird said: "I'm the same person. I don't intend to cut my jib to fit the moment. I'd like to do some thoughtful commentaries that I hope people will enjoy. I don't expect them to always agree."
In an interview, she said she was aware of the negative reactions to her Thursday commentary, but accustomed to such responses. She said she will persevere.
"It's useful to remember history, remember the past," she said, explaining Thursday's topic. She said she chose verse because she thought the rhymes would allow her to say "things that would be too harsh to the ear" otherwise.
The former chief justice, who often criticized the media for shallowness and failure to draw on history, said she aspires be a "thoughtful commentator," then added: "You know me, I'm not predictable. . . . Maybe I'll surprise you once in a while."
Severino said Bird was hired as a liberal counter-point to conservative commentator Bruce Herschensohn, a former aide to President Richard M. Nixon, though so far, the two have not taken opposite sides of an issue.
Severino explained that when Bill Press left his job as commentator to run for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate, the station began looking for another liberal commentator--"and we were interested in hiring a woman."
Times staff writer Myrna Oliver and Steve Weinstein in Los Angeles also contributed to this story.