The justice prefers to keep her privacy O'Connor gives no interviews, but engages in public speaking

October 01, 1995|By LYLE DENNISTON | LYLE DENNISTON,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Sandra Day O'Connor, a woman of global reputation and a member of America's power elite, remains mostly a stranger in her own land.

The first woman justice on the Supreme Court, and now a thoroughly familiar symbol of the achieving woman, she is often the center of attention at glittering Washington social gatherings. She also is an active public speaker. And yet, she is among the capital city's most remote celebrities.

The public sometimes remembers her celebrity, sometimes forgets it: She was on the Gallup Organization's "most admired women" list for the first five years she was a justice, beginning in 1981, but appeared only intermittently after that: in 1989 and 1991, and not since.

Later this month, however, she will be inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

An imposingly tall, white-haired woman, she is rarely noticed by tourists when she enters the court cafeteria line and carries her tray along, or when she sits down there to eat with one or more court employees.

Former Sen. Dennis DeConcini -- a fellow Arizonan, long-time friend and former colleague of hers on the staff of Democratic Gov. Samuel P. Goddard back home years ago -- says of her: "Sandra is a very, very private person who really protects that."

She will exchange pleasantries with members of the press she meets by chance, but she does not grant interviews and does not even release her speaking schedule. (As is her usual practice, she did not respond to a request for an interview with The Sun.)

When the late Justice Thurgood Marshall's private papers were made public (as he had dictated) by the Library of Congress in 1993, Justice O'Connor was deeply upset, according to insiders, because she knew there were revelations about her own and other justices' private deliberations.

She had the same angry reaction, it is understood, when retired Justice William J. Brennan Jr., opened his court papers to a biographer, Georgia law professor Stephen J. Wermiel.

The reasons for her resentment are not fully known. Associates suggest it was in keeping with her belief that privacy is as important to the institution's behind-the-scenes work as it is to her personally.

Her resentment at being the object of public curiosity surfaced vividly last fall, in an unusual speech here. For the first time, she took to a public stage to talk about her battle with breast cancer seven years ago.

The worst part of that experience, she told her audience, was "my public visibility . . . There was constant media coverage. 'How does she look? When is she going to step down . . .? She looks pale to me. I don't give her six months.' This was awful.

There were people in the press box with telescopes looking at me in the courtroom to see just what my condition was. I didn't like that."

Amid the discomfort she felt over curiosity about her health, Justice O'Connor tried determinedly to ignore it. She did not stay away from the court, did not pass off her work to others, did not withdraw to the protection of her family and friends.

Though a public figure, she chose to try to conquer her potentially deadly illness with scarcely any public mention of how she did it. With husband John at her side, they fought the disease in the privacy of clinics and doctors' offices. It was, apparently, a war they won.

The fact that she later took the risk of making an unguarded and frank speech about her illness, her close associates say, reveals much about Justice O'Connor. The group who heard her remarks was the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship.

She spoke to other survivors to encourage them by showing her own pain and vulnerability.

That appearance recalled a statement that a long-time friend, former Phoenix mayor Marjorie Hance, made in 1981 when America was getting acquainted with Justice O'Connor: "She has an affirmative desire to help, to be kind where she can be kind, and to be generous where generosity is possible. . . .As we used to say in the schoolyard, she is not 'stuck up.' "

To those who gathered last November to listen to her story of personal survival, Sandra O'Connor was not the remote woman sitting out of reach on the Supreme Court.

She was, she told them, merely another survivor. And a realist. "I don't have," she said, "a magic wand to wave."

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