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Dersh Worship

Alan Dershowitz, Harvard's Most Ubiquitous Prof, Makes Headlines...Again

By Joanna M. Weiss

He is always in the classroom. He is always in the courtroom. And these days, he is also in the headlines, on the best-seller lists and even at the box office.

True, Professor of Law Alan M. Dershowitz has always maintained a high profile in the media. But due to his recent sensational activities, "Dersh," with his distinctive mustache and inventive defenses, has become a little more conspicuous than usual.

The recent wave of hype began last year with his defense of hotel magnate Leona Helmsley. With the release of Reversal of Fortune, the film in which actor Ron Silver portrays Dershowitz defending Claus von Bulow, the feisty professor's public recognition level rose another notch.

And this week Dershowitz kept the momentum going with his high-profile opposition to a state judicial appointment. Dershowitz this week accused judicial nominee Paul Mahoney of displaying ethnic bias against attorney Harvey Silverglate and of spreading false rumors about Silverglate.

He is also alleging that an earlier Mahoney judicial nomination was blocked by former District Attorney Garrett Byrne because of Mahoney's misbehavior as an assistant district attorney.

Dershowitz's accusations sparked an uncharacteristic outcry from an angry Senate President William M. Bulger that made headlines in both of Boston's daily newspapers, which played the clash as a classic episode of ethnic political strife.

Even Dershowitz's harshest critics usually acknowledge that the law prof's defenses, if not his intentions, are firmly grounded in legal scholarship. But how long can Dershowitz's media honeymoon last?

Will the recent phenomenon of Dersh Worship backfire amid a wave of public skepticism of an attorney-run-amok? Mike Barnicle, The Boston Globe's metro columnist, certainly thinks so.

On the front page of Thursday's Metro/Region section in the Globe, Barnicle delivered a scathing commentary on Dershowitz's media mystique. "The words go in the paper and help satisfy the emotional needs of Al, who has a first-rate ego and a mind racing to catch up," Barnicle writes.

Later, he refers to "the time he told me and a friend as we stood by the Out-Of-Town-News stand that, in Al's exact words, `I love Asian women, don't you? They're...they're so submissive.'"

Such criticism is nothing new for Dershowitz. His name is always floating around the media, punctuated by blasts of publicity about projects like his ill-fated Harvard Square deli, Mavens.

"He always acts as if he doesn't feel it at all," says fellow law professor Philip B. Heymann. "I don't think it's easy to be under attack."

Silverglate is also sympathetic to the plight of his publicity-prone colleague. "I'm more peripherally involved than he is, and I have not been able to get any work done in the last two-and-a-half days," he says of the publicity surrounding the Mahoney nomination.

"Yet I can't not take a phone call from someone in the media," Silverglate says, comparing his situation to that of Dershowitz. "You get dragged into these things and they try to swallow you."

So who is the real Alan Dershowitz, the man behind the hype?

"He's a very warm and affectionate parent and husband," says Silverglate. "He's a terrific friend. And he's a pretty good basketball player."

"I find him always a bundle of energy, extremely active, always doing something," says Heymann.

Barnicle is critical of Dershowitz's legal skills, writing in the recent column: "If you threw him, live, into a motions session at Superior Court or First Session at Roxbury Court it would be like watching a man drown."

But Silverglate, himself a prominent lawyer, calls Dershowitz "certainly the best appellate lawyer I've ever seen. He certainly ranks up with the best of the country in criminal cases."

"I'm a big admirer of Professor Dershowitz," Heymann says. "I think he's a great addition to the Law School."

In his legal exploits, Dershowitz continues to be a magnet for both praise and criticism. By all accounts, Dersh is a colorful character, whose flamboyance and flair have led some to call him a caricature of himself.

But, according to his colleagues, Dershowitz always maintains a sense of humor that allows him to rise above the Mike Barnicles of the world. "He's capable of laughing at himself," Heymann says.

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