Rehnquist remembered for his humor, humility

President Bush was among the crowd of friends and family who gathered yesterday at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in the District to pay tribute to the late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.

By all accounts, the man who had served on the Supreme Court for more than 33 years was a character.

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, drew laughter at the funeral when he recalled that in January 2001, Chief Justice Rehnquist was scheduled to speak at a Mass.

“He said he was going to speak on the disputed presidential election.”

Cardinal McCarrick said he privately worried that it would be too touchy of a subject with the Rehnquist court recently having awarded the election to George W. Bush rather than Vice President Al Gore. When Chief Justice Rehnquist took the podium, he addressed the congregation and said his topic was the “disputed presidential election of 1876: Hayes versus Tilden.”

A devoted family man and churchgoer, Chief Justice Rehnquist died Saturday of thyroid cancer at his Arlington home. He had revealed to the public last year that he had cancer.

The two-hour ceremony was simple and solemn: no pomp, no blaring horns, just a choir from his Holy Redeemer Lutheran Church from McLean. Two large floral sprays of simple, white flowers flanked the altar, and candlesticks burned and flickered against the religious frescoes on the walls.

Chief Justice Rehnquist’s flag-draped, simple pine coffin was carried up the cathedral steps by former law clerks.

The choice of coffin came as no surprise to those who knew him.

“The chief certainly wasn’t one for putting on airs,” said Andrew DeVooght, who clerked for Justice Rehnquist in 2002. “I certainly would not have expected a golden, ornate coffin.”

“He was a man of tremendous humility,” agreed Leonard Leo, president of the conservative Federalist Society.

Chief Justice Rehnquist was famously thrifty, both in his view of the law and his lifestyle. As chief justice, he was entitled to five clerks instead of the four allocated to associate justices. But during his 18 years as chief justice, he never hired more than three.

During the service, the president praised Chief Justice Rehnquist for his “calm and steady” presence on the court. Longtime friend and colleague Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who was shaking visibly, talked of her abiding love for the man she said “had no pretenses at all.”

But he was a man who loved a sly, irreverent quip.

Justice O’Connor spoke of the time Chief Justice Rehnquist was taken to a hospital emergency room, where the attending physician asked who his primary caregiver was.

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