Zeke Bonura was a large and remarkably immobile first baseman whose slowness did not grieve him because he understood a vital principle of baseball: You are rarely charged with an error when you do not touch the ball.
Conservatives have hoped the Supreme Court would adhere to the Bonura Insight, sometimes known as judicial restraint. The Burger Court has not. Indeed, its judicial activism has been as marked as, and arguably more destructive than, the Warren Court's.
None of the Warren Court's most important rulings has been overturned or even significantly circumscribed in the 17 Burger years. The sweep of the Miranda ruling on the rights of suspects has been only slightly circumscribed. The Burger Court is responsible for the ruinous spread of forced busing as a ''remedy'' for segregation. The Burger Court misconstrued the 1964 Civil Rights Act to permit reverse racial discrimination on behalf of government-approved minorities.
Burger Court activism extended procedural due process guarantees to public-school students accused of behaving badly. The Burger Court has done nothing significant to reassert reason in the interpretation of the ban on ''establishment of religion'' -- nothing, that is, to re-establish the principle that government must be neutral between sects, not between religion and secularism.
And nothing the Warren Court did was as raw and radical an exercise of judicial power as the 1973 decision that swept away the laws regulating abortions in 50 states.
Supreme Court appointments are the premier spoils of presidential politics. Each appointee is 20 percent of a majority at the apex of one of the three branches of government, the branch that has assumed custody of the issues (race, abortion, etc.) the political branches have been pleased to relinquish. The court is where American public philosophy is published as an unending serial. The departure of Burger, the elevation of William Rehnquist and the nomination of Antonin Scalia are important episodes in the process of lengthening the shadow today's president will cast into tomorrow.
The court is a small, face-to-face society where politics has subtle dynamics. The players are strong-willed professionals reasoning about hot issues in the cool climate of a written Constitution, changing statutes and a vast body of case law. The building of coalitions is influenced by intellectual nuance and the power of personality. On both counts, Scalia and Rehnquist will augment the power of conservative jurisprudence.
Scalia is an intellectual in a way that Burger is not: by training and inclination. Scalia has taught at several of the finest law schools. He has the theoretical turn of mind that deepens analytic powers and does not dispose a judge to try to split all differences. That disposition can make intellectuals ineffective politicians but forceful judges. With Scalia leavening the court, it may be less inclined to torture itself, and all who love logic, with ever-more-baroque criteria for distinguishing permissible from impermissible ''race-conscious'' state action.
No one ever looked more like a chief justice than Burger, who if he ever as an infant played in a sandbox must have done so in striped trousers and a swallowtail coat. Rehnquist's clothes come from the factory pre-rumpled. The New York Times locates Rehnquist on ''the Court's extreme right wing.'' (The Times style book probably says the phrase ''the Court's extreme left wing'' is an oxymoron.) Actually, Rehnquist has neither the abrasive philosophy nor, as important, the jagged temperament of an extremist.
What he has is the keenest mind on the court, which is why critics complain that he writes too well. When person A cannot cope with person B's arguments, A says B is not wise, only articulate. In the administration of the court, Rehnquist's affability and intellectual effervescence will enhance his effectiveness.
The rise of Rehnquist to the pinnacle of his profession, with the last ascent achieved from the hand of Ronald Reagan, illustrates the geology of our politics. Rehnquist, an Arizonan, was pulled toward public life by the conservative movement energized by another Arizonan, Barry Goldwater, whose 1964 campaign brought political prominence to Ronald Reagan.
Rehnquist serves now with another Arizonan, a law-school classmate who was active in state politics, Sandra Day O'Connor. As Barry Goldwater takes his leave of Washington, he sees around him abundant evidence that the significance of 1964 is not that he lost 45 states, but that he won the Republican Party and, doing so, seeded the future.