- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 4, 2005

Godspeed, ‘Chief’

More than anything else, the late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist cherished his relative obscurity. The potential loss of it was what worried him the most about an impeachment trial of President Clinton.

Apart from the devastating impact he knew a trial would have on the country as a whole, Mr. Rehnquist realized that his life would never be the same. Indeed, Mr. Rehnquist authored the 1992 book, “Grand Inquests: The Historic Impeachments of Justice Samuel Chase and President Andrew Johnson,” until then the only two impeachment trials in our nation’s history.

“His anonymity goes away once he’s on TV for a few days and that has got him terribly concerned,” a Supreme Court insider told this columnist in January 1999. “Right now, he can go out and walk around the Supreme Court, as he does every morning at 9 o’clock, 9:15. Every day, he walks around the building a couple of times, walks around the block alone and nobody’s there.

“Of course, there’s security guys within reach, but nobody is walking with him. Nobody recognizes him. Tourists don’t know who that guy is.”

As it was, when the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History later displayed travails of American presidents, including Johnson, next to the relics of Mr. Clinton was the robe worn by Mr. Rehnquist while presiding over the Senate impeachment trial.

(We reported later that in his annual financial-disclosure report, the chief justice listed this same robe, which he himself presented to the Smithsonian, as a “donation.” He declared in the report that the robe was appraised by Sotheby’s at a whopping $30,000. One can only imagine the price tag put on Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress.)

Like it or not, Mr. Rehnquist had crawled out of his shell. One day, he had tongues wagging at the Supreme Court when he showed up in a packed courtroom wearing a robe with four bright gold stripes on each sleeve — much like a Navy captain wears, but around the biceps instead of the wrists.

“The chief,” or so it was explained to us by a top court official, had designed the robe himself after seeing a similar one worn by the lord chancellor in the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta “Iolanthe.”

And as for his seemingly gruff exterior, Mr. Rehnquist actually possessed a sense of humor. Not too many years ago, while addressing a ceremony at the University of Virginia Law School, he began his speech by noting that the audience was filled with lawyers and nonlawyers alike.

“In the past, when I’ve talked to audiences like this, I’ve often started off with a lawyer joke, a complete caricature of a lawyer who’s been nasty, greedy and unethical. But I’ve stopped that practice,” he said.

“I gradually realized that the lawyers in the audience didn’t think the jokes were funny and the nonlawyers didn’t know they were jokes.”

Blown history

Tens of thousands of homes, many of them historic, were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, including a house that had stood for 154 years in Pascagoula, Miss., and belonged to Sen. Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican

Mr. Lott, whose children grew up in the home, counted himself among the Mississippians whose “morale” was “hurting right now.”

Another was Rep. Gene Taylor, Mississippi Democrat. He found his Bay St. Louis home virtually obliterated.

And in Biloxi, Beauvoir, the retirement home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, which was constructed in 1848, hardly weathered the 21st-century storm. One aerial shot of the 500-acre estate showed its main house still standing, although columns, windows and doors that had withstood many previous hurricanes over the course of more than 150 years were gone.

“If the structural integrity of the house is sound, I believe Beauvoir can be restored,” says Dan A. McCaskill, a Beauvoir trustee from Indianola, Miss.

When it rains

“The rainstorm has done the worst that it can do, now we have to answer ourselves a question: Are we going to become a human problem or are we going to see this as a human opportunity … to offer hospitality to those who are hurt, to offer sacrificial action?”

So the Rev. Luis Leon asked President Bush and other members of the St. John’s Episcopal Church congregation yesterday, his sermon speaking to the immense tragedy inflicted by Hurricane Katrina.

Mr. Bush certainly had much to absorb during the 8 a.m. service, with prayers also offered for the soul of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who died Saturday night at the age of 80.

John McCaslin, whose column is nationally syndicated, can be reached at 202/636-3284 or [email protected]

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