TV’s Revolving Political Door : Rose Bird Reflects on Her Image on the Tube
After a quiet year at home in Palo Alto, lecturing, gardening and rejuvenating herself following the stormy 1986 election that tossed her from the California Supreme Court, Rose Bird has come to Hollywood, still adamantly refusing to be typecast.
Earlier this month, former chief justice Bird, 51, enlisted as KABC-TV Channel 7’s newest political commentator, a job that will keep her continually exposed to public scrutiny. She offers her commentaries Wednesdays and Thursdays on KABC’s 5 p.m. newscasts and at 6 p.m. on KGO-TV, the ABC-owned station in San Francisco.
Aside from mastering some of the day-to-day idiosyncrasies of television news, however, Bird’s biggest challenge may be convincing the same public that voted her off the court, and her new boss--who has hyped her in ads “as the most controversial woman in California"--that she is not a left-wing ideologist and has no intention of serving as a counterpoint to fellow “Eyewitness News” commentator Bruce Herschensohn.
“We have a conservative commentator in Bruce Herschensohn, a moderate in John Tunney and we had a liberal in Bill Press (who left KABC last November to run for the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate),” says John Severino, KABC’s general manager. “When Press announced for Senate, we had to take him off the air. Since that time we’ve been searching for someone who would represent that liberal point of view, and we wanted a woman.”
But neither Bird nor the subjects of her first several commentaries suggest that she is willing to leap into the role as KABC’s “liberal” commentator. On her first day on the air, Bird followed Herschensohn’s impassioned condemnation of Congress for voting down President Reagan’s latest Contra aid proposal with a rhyming-verse remembrance of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
The next day, having beat back three onslaughts of breast cancer herself and after reading discouraging
statistics that indicated that more women were dying from the disease than ever before, she delivered a personalized message of hope for all cancer victims.
Not exactly the stuff that would incite her conservative critics to hot-headed debate.
“I think it’s difficult to pigeonhole me, and that’s why some people were somewhat surprised at the selection of the first commentaries,” Bird said in a recent interview at KABC after reading a commentary on the importance of a free press in a democratic society. “I’m not an ideologue, and my views can’t be particularly categorized, especially today when so many things are in flux. I’m not sure you can totally categorize people in terms of liberal or conservative. They are used now as pejoratives.
“I admire (Herschensohn’s) ability to (argue his particular perspective) five days a week. But I’m not Bruce Herschensohn. I’m not a female version of him nor an ideological negative or mirror image. I’m not. I don’t look upon my role as an opportunity to take him on or balance out his point of view.”
Though she is reluctant to pigeonhole herself as to what kind of commentator she aspires to be, Bird suggests that she will present thoughtful essays on human values, ethics and how society reacts under stress. Severino says the station has placed no restrictions about subject matter on any of its commentators. “Two minutes,” Bird quipped happily, is her only official guideline.
Bird says she isn’t sure whether the controversy she generated during her reign on the court has abated, but she concedes that both her former supporters and detractors alike have plenty of preconceived notions about who she is and what she stands for. Prodding the audience to think about more global, human concerns rather than hammering away on a political issue may be her strategy in overcoming those preconceived ideas and earning herself a friendly audience.
“My goal is to get (viewers) to listen and think about something for a moment,” Bird said. “Get them to think about life and death. How often do you even talk about it, much less hear anything about it on television?”
Bird is keenly aware that both Herschensohn and Press used their TV jobs as springboards for statewide political campaigns, but she emphatically insists she has no intention of ever entering politics or returning to the judiciary. “I’ve been vaccinated twice,” Bird said, laughing heartily about her successful 1978 and disastrous 1986 campaigns for reconfirmation to the state Supreme Court.
Single, the “mother” of two dogs and still sporting the made-for-TV makeover she employed in her unsuccessful effort to win reconfirmation, Bird found herself last year in a position where she had to start all over. “It was like being 20 again,” she said.
She recalled that as a student she had always wanted to be a journalist, and so when Severino came to her with an offer, she decided to jump back into the public eye.
“Television is lively,” Bird said. “I was a judge for 10 years and that’s a very somber role. Your responsibility in the press is no less than it was as a judge, but the people in journalism are kind of irreverent and iconoclastic and very young in their outlook. And so it was a very nice change for me after so many years in that serious, somber atmosphere. It was fun to find people who like to wisecrack too.”
Severino admits that Bird’s lack of television news experience concerns him, but he insists that just like Herschensohn and Press before her, Bird “will learn on the air.” And while her experience on the court, he said, lends itself to articulating ideas on television, Bird contends that the most difficult part of her transition from the elevated bench on the high court to a swivel chair on a local TV news set stems from the obviously disparate atmosphere of the two institutions.
“On camera you have to be lively and expressive,” Bird said. “When you’re a judge, you learn to have a poker face because you don’t want to interfere with the litigants and their arguments in any way. So I’ve had 10 years of showing no reaction and now I’m coming into a medium where it’s important to be expressive if you want to get your message across. It’s going to be a challenge.”