William Rehnquist: A Great Justice and a Humble Man

Recently in Rome (at the same time as the G-8 Summit), I saw seven or more large, black limousines cruising through closed streets near the Via Veneto. I wondered what Middle Eastern King or Potentate was holding this show of pomp and massive power. I learned that it was Michelle Obama and children seeing the sights of Rome in the same grand style as their multi-million-dollar shopping trips to Chicago and New York. I thought of the growth of the presidential display of pomp from two limousines for the President himself early in my life to the current seven for Michelle and G-4 Jets for congressmen.  

For most of the last 30 years, until 2005, on many weekends, you could have gone to Arlington,Va., to a simple townhouse in a very middle-class neighborhood. There at about 7:30 or so in the morning you would have seen an elderly man clothed in a discount-store suit and hush puppies climbing into an ancient Subaru, that had been parked on the street since there was no garage, to drive himself to work or tennis. You probably would have been astonished to learn that this man was Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, one of the most powerful figures in the United States and its most influential legal mind over the past three decades.  

Rehnquist, by Herman J. Obermayer is the story of that man in his later years, from the vantage point of a close and dear friend. It does not track Rehnquist’s judicial decisions, nor does the book tell the story of Nan Rehnquist, Rehnquist’s amazing wife of many years, who died in the early 1990s. Obermayer is an elderly journalist, not a lawyer, and his friendship with Rehnquist is later in their lives. The book instead is the story of a great friendship between an unlikely pair of elderly men — the Lutheran Chief Justice and an observant Jewish journalist, who each found that their similarity of viewpoints and experiences ranging from tennis to service in World War II overwhelmed their differences. It is a very unusual book. While there are many shelves filled with dusty books by law professors analyzing the judicial decisions of the justices, there are relatively few “personal” view biographies by close friends of justices purely as men rather than as lawyers.

This book is a wonderful personal look at Rehnquist as a man, from his sheer intellectual brilliance to his foibles. It relates how Obermayer and Rehnquist would often carry on conversations with each other solely in memorized lines from assorted long-ago English poems, or old songs. Try that sometime, and you learn just how smart Bill Rehnquist was.

Rehnquist was appalled when Obermayer opened a new can of tennis balls after two matches — more so when he bought a new BMW. “Looks like a Chevy to me.” The Chief was an incorrigible small bettor with one-dollar bets on election races, the amount and timing of snowfalls, the number and timing of baseball hits, geography and a wide variety of other occurrences and facts. (I confess to having been victimized by Rehnquist bets. Once it cost me $5 to learn Texas was not twice as big as California).

Obermayer takes particular offense at Alan Dershowitz’s false claim (made immediately and inappropriately after the justice’s death) that Rehnquist was anti-Semitic. Obermayer spent many Seders with Rehnquist. His aunt called the justice “the tall goyische Obe brings to Seder.” Typically Rehnquist introduced himself at the Seders simply as a “government lawyer” when asked what he did.

Obermayer relates his disappointment at the Rehnquist funeral — a disappointment I shared — unavoidable because Rehnquist was simply a bigger and greater man than anyone else there. It was disappointing because there was little reference either to the foundational contribution of Rehnquist to modern Supreme Court jurisprudence or to his incredible individual courage in swimming (often alone) for 33 years against a powerful left-wing activist legal current. Obermayer’s book is itself really the powerful eulogy of a close friend to a great man and a great friendship.

Rehnquist’s legal career spanned the time (beginning with his clerkship) from Jackson, Frankfurter and the New Deal Justices to the pre-dusk of the Night of Obama. His friends ranged from Justice Douglas to Barry Goldwater. For 34 years, Rehnquist was the preeminent force in American law. He fought the good fight for the values and Constitution of the Republic. He was a hero who, close to death, rose from a sickbed in frigid weather to preside over the Republic’s rite of renewal in the 2005 Inauguration. Yet, as Obermayer’s book shows us, he lived as the simplest and humblest of men — in surroundings that few politicos or wealthy lawyers would consider suitable.

In the end, the books teaches us that, in contrast to the massive hypocrisy of Washington (with global-warming prophets flying on large jets to huge mansions), Rehnquist’s life, like his judicial opinions, calls us back to better, simpler  and more honest times in the Republic’s history. For many years, Rehnquist’s annual law clerk party featured a croquet game, eventually moved to the lawn of the Supreme Court Building. (My late wife, Anne, was often his favorite croquet teammate.) Once he and the clerks were lectured at length by an unknowing elderly woman passerby about how they were violating the law by playing there. Typically, Rehnquist simply accepted the reproach without ever revealing who he was.  

Anne O’Neill and Bill Rehnquist now play in a much fairer and better place than D.C., but Obermayer’s book preserves for better days much of the heart of this great man and towering, conservative, legal figure.