Behind the Lines: The 'supreme president' of PR

Despite his refusal to give interviews, it was always possible to find out his views on issues.

aharon barak thought 88  (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
aharon barak thought 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The Law is the true embodiment, Of everything that's excellent, It has no kind of fault or flaw, And I, my Lords, embody the Law. W.S. Gilbert (Iolanthe) 'Aharon Barak asked to meet me, but I decided to turn him down," an editor of a certain Hebrew daily told me. "I'd prefer not to have a cozy, 'off-the-record' meeting with him, so as not to be faced with the dilemma about subsequent articles my paper might want to publish about him." To the best of my knowledge, that editor was the only member of the media to refuse the entreaties of former (as of this week) Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Many would say that as a journalist, it was his duty to meet with such an influential figure, even if everything said during the meeting was totally of the record. On numerous occasions, Barak said that judges do not give interviews or explain themselves to the public. The reason: Their verdicts and opinions delivered from the bench do their talking for them. But behind the scenes, Barak was unparalleled for holding discreet meetings with journalists of all kinds - editors, reporters, commentators, broadcasters or Web site contributors - during which he explained at length his judicial philosophy and decision-making process, albeit without discussing details of specific cases. Despite his refusal to give interviews during his 28-year tenure, it was always possible to find out his views on issues concerning the court, by reading any one of hundreds of articles published after his "quiet" meetings. Nevertheless, Barak managed to work his way into the hearts of many a jaded hack. I was once present at a closed briefing he gave to the press, and when I whispered a disparaging remark about him, a hard-bitten veteran said: "Shsh... Can't you see he's a great man?" Nor was the media the only group Barak cultivated to enhance his prestige. He also fostered select groups of followers. His fan club included members of the legal professions, professors, politicians, IDF officers and rabbis, who supported him in times of tension, and who were always ready to give interviews in which they extolled his virtues. It is these people who elevated him to the rank of a secular Admor, by accepting his rulings uncritically. The carefully selected occasions of his public lectures (the policy of the court spokesperson); the long hours he spent with his biographer, Naomi Levitzky (the book's title, Your Honor, says it all); and the grandstanding that was often part and parcel of his judicial career all contributed to his being transformed into Public Figure Number One. In Hebrew, the Chief Justice is called the "president of the Supreme Court." As an ironic Freudian slip, many people referred to him as the "Supreme President." Indeed, for many Israelis, Barak has been Israel's real president for the last decade. THIS COLUMN isn't about Barak's impressive legal legacy, which has been written about, broadcast and televised extensively for days now. It is about his PR expertise and media stardom. Indeed, Thursday's live broadcasts of the festive events surrounding his retirement and the appointment of Dorit Beinish to replace him - replete with sentimental interviews with his wife, daughters and secretary - exceeded the attention given even to the swearing-in of new prime ministers. It certainly outweighed the attention given his replacing of Meir Shamgar 11 years ago - in spite of the fact, according to many observers, that Shamgar enjoyed greater respect and affection from peers and the public than Barak. But there is no question who the superstar is. Media personality Ilana Dayan - who, like many other journalists, on Thursday morning delivered a hagiography of him on IDF Radio - let one interesting comment about Barak slip out: "He certainly is aware of his own importance." Though in some ways a humble and unassuming person, as Chief Justice, Barak was totally conscious of his stature and legacy. He proved himself as adept at playing the media game as he was at navigating the intricacies of the legal system - placing himself on a pedestal as the embodiment of The Law. By doing so, however, he may have caused himself and his beloved legal system more harm than good. In fact, it was his style, perhaps - even more than his controversial belief that "everything is judgeable" - that earned the Supreme Court more enemies than allies during his tenure. Indeed, opinion polls put the court in low public esteem and under constant threat of political legislation to curb its powers. Furthermore, despite his claim that the courts are the true defenders of the rights of minority groups, many of these groups - particularly the haredim - regarded Barak as their worst enemy. It was haredi politicians who blocked an initiative to allow him to mark his departure by addressing a special Knesset session. His supporters would say that the nature of the opposition to his life-work is the proof of its importance. But the almost uniform social status of these backers - as that of his opponents - is the clearest proof of the societal gulf that widened during his term on the bench. ONE COULD argue that Barak's PR policy was a natural and necessary accessory to his judicial one. But there were other ground-breaking judges who managed to create precedents without raising so many hackles. Barak turns 70 this weekend. In spite of his age, he managed to adapt well to a modern, media-driven environment. And despite his protestations, he understood perfectly well that in his position, expressing himself through his verdicts would never suffice. His legacy will be the stuff of arguments for years to come - not only to be found in law books, but in newspaper archives, as well. [email protected]