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The new white hats


SOME TONGUE-in-cheek cajolery of the legal profession recently in this space drew the usual sprinkle of humorless and vaguely menacing letters from lawyers which inevitably falls upon all who make light of the ancient profession.

The art of writing humorless and vaguely menacing letters must surely be taught in law school. It is an indispensable skill for putting the fear of blind Lady Justice's occasionally asinine whimsies into that great portion of the citizenry that doesn't know habeas corpus from duces tecum.

Lawyers are a bit tetchy these days about their "image." Like journalists, they seem to be in bad public odor. As with journalists too, the public seems to think they are cynical, greedy, dishonest and have too much power.

In an age when the sensitivity police have banned almost every joke conceivable, people still tell lawyer jokes with impunity.

And yet, the fact is otherwise. Despite so many signs of public contempt, the public is absolutely in love with lawyers. On television and movie screens the lawyer has become as inescapable as the cowboy once was.

The courtroom has replaced Tombstone and the Pecos and Monument Valley and the streets of Laredo and home, home on the range. Which is to say, it is now the standard setting for the up-to-date, modern, end-of-century showdown between white hat and black, good and evil, marshal and gunslinger.

That's why recently we had all the major networks in a television orgy. All other things televisual were abandoned while the networks presented every tiresomely detailed legal maneuver in the O.J. Simpson case to a nation presumably so enchanted with questions of criminal procedure and Fourth Amendment rights that it didn't even whimper about having its soap operas scrubbed.

Television series about lawyers abound and prosper. Scarcely a Sunday night passes without some hokum based on a "real-life" case taking us into the TV courtroom.

The Hollywood western has deteriorated into jokey Dean Martin westerns, like "Maverick," which treat the classic form with patronizing contempt. Dealing with lawyers, however, movies are dead serious and totally romantic.

Thus "A Few Good Men" gives us an unjokey treatment of military law as litigated by handsome Tom Cruise. "Philadelphia" gives us lawyers both black-hatted and white-hatted doing combat on the unjokey subject of AIDS.

The lawyers on display in the TV coverage of the Simpson case were not confined to the Southern California group at work in the courtroom. Press accounts of the vast fees normally collected by Alan Dershowitz and F. Lee Bailey, already retained for future phases of the case, invited people to turn green with envy or sob with dismay, depending on their moral tone.

As the war in the Persian Gulf unearthed military experts galore and fanned them all over the tube, the Simpson case has produced legal experts by the spate, most of them described as "defense" attorneys.

By the end of the week, if you were rich as sin and needed a defense attorney fast, you would probably have had to phone a television station. There couldn't have been many sitting in offices waiting for a phone to ring.

What a richness of lawyers, and of law, we have. And what a good thing it is, on balance. It was lawyers, after all, who created the Constitution that created the United States, and even the meanest of them nowadays must always have that model subliminally housed in the back of his skull.

The question then is why President Clinton must use the tin cup to collect money to defend himself in the Paula Jones sexual-harassment case. This is an appalling situation in which to cast a president, and it exists because the price of law and lawyers has also become appalling.

Surely in a land with so many fine and rich lawyers some sense of professional pride might encourage their great stars to form a disinterested consortium to serve presidents as friends of the nation in times like this.

Russell Baker is a syndicated columnist.

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