He was almost unnoticed at first, the man with the gleaming white hair standing alone in the press room at the American Bar Association convention here, looking just like one of the gang.
"Doesn't anyone want to talk to me?" he finally asked with mock exasperation.
Everyone did want to talk to the chief justice of the United States, Warren E. Burger. It was just that no one expected him to want to talk to the reporters.
His appearance in the press room, his accessibility and, on Friday, his candid remarks about an opinion at a conference of state chief justices also meeting here are the talk of an otherwise unexciting assembly.
For most public officials, this sort of public relations effort would be standard. For Burger, whose aides generally build an impenetrable wall around him, it is not. As if to underline his awareness of this, Burger remarked as he entered the press room that he was here despite warnings "from my doctor to stay away from evil and dangerous forces." He is recovering from viral pneumonia.
On Thursday, Burger strolled into a conference of state chief justices to hail the Supreme Court's recent ruling, which he wrote, allowing the states to experiment with cameras and other recording devices in the courtroom. "The central point of the decision," he said, "was that the Supreme Court does not have supervisory powers over the state judiciary. I know that's been a sore point with some of you who thought we thought we did."
The view was not exceptional for Burger. The surprise was that he was speaking publicly about a case.
Burger's accessibility coincides with the increasingly "pro-press" opinions he has been writing. Two weeks ago he wrote the Chandler decision permitting use of the cameras at the discretion of state judges. Though the chief justice said it was a victory for "federalism," it is being praised more by the press than by the state judges.
Last year he wrote what is considered the most significant First Amendment free press decision in years -- the Richmond Newspapers opinion saving that the press and the public have a constitutional right to attend trials.
It also coincides with his own concern, expressed almost every time he encounters a reporter, about his image as an enemy of the press.
The image came in part from decisions he has joined in, like the one in 1979 denounced by the news media and liberals because it allowed libel plaintiffs to question editors and reporters about their "state of mind" when they prepared news stories. But it also came from his own occasionally chilly, sometimes stormy, relationships with the media. He has had noisy struggles with TV reporters over the taping of speeches he delivered.
Reporters arriving at the ABA convention this year still received the usual stern instructions that the chief justice had barred any interviews and would not entertain questions during a reception scheduled for him.
There is rampant speculation about Burger's new image: that after 12 years on the court he is thinking of retiring, that at age 73 he is "mellowing," that he is just becoming a friendlier chief justice. But he and his closest assistants say that he has always been this way and that the media have simply been unwilling to recognize it.