CONTRARY TO POPULAR OPINION. By Alan M. Dershowitz. Pharos Books. 398 pages. $22.95.
ONCE upon a time there was a young Harvard professor who decided that instead of getting all his legal knowledge from law ++ books, he also would get involved in actual court cases. From such unusual beginnings did Alan Dershowitz move on to become one of the most famous lawyers in America -- becoming in the process an author, talk show guest and even a major character in a motion picture.
He also, somehow, finds time to write a syndicated newspaper )) column. "Contrary to Popular Opinion" is a collection of those columns from 1988 to July of this year. That is pretty current for a book, but in trying to get the later ones in, the publisher rushed, and the proofreading is a bit sloppy.
The major problem with collections of old newspaper columns is that they can lack current interest, be stale or may appeal to the author for personal reasons that the reader can't appreciate.
That isn't a problem here. Mr. Dershowitz's commentary still seems fresh and relevant. The issues are still with us, the insights worth thinking about. From a couple of columns, it is clear that Mr. Dershowitz can be ahead of the news.
Example by example, Mr. Dershowitz shows why he dislikes bad judges, bad laws, lack of respect for personal liberties, Poland and Pat Buchanan.
He defines himself this way:
"I am difficult to chart on the conventional right-left, conservative-liberal, hawk-dove continua. I am a Jewish, American, academic, civil libertarian. But I disagree with much of what the Jewish 'leadership' of this country stands for. I am out of sync with the current American leadership. I rarely agree with my academic colleagues. And I am a dissident within the American Civil Liberties Union."
Mr. Dershowitz's problems generally come when "my politics comes down on one side and my commitment to the Bill of Rights comes down on the other." Which does he opt for? You're right if you said the Constitution.
It is this which has caused him his greatest publicity and controversy -- when he backs unpopular causes and takes up for clients like Claus von Bulow, Leona Helmsley and Mike Tyson.
Mr. Dershowitz doesn't think much of the current Supreme Court ("among the least distinguished high courts in the Western world") and says that President Bush's assurance that Clarence Thomas was the best man for the last court vacancy "will not pass the giggle test."
He dislikes the verdict in the Rodney King case but doesn't think the policemen should be tried again. He detests rap music and flag burining but thinks both "should remain constitutionally protected forms of expression."
The chances are readers won't agree with everything Mr. Dershowitz says, but with such a skillful advocate pleading his case, they'll come away with a better understanding of the issues. It's hard not to admire the author's often brilliant contrariness.
Myron Beckenstein is assistant foreign editor of The Sun.