Members of the Supreme Court of the United States are a necessarily private, cloistered lot who with rare exception relax only with the closest of relatives or friends. As a result, these nine powerful men and women, while insulated from the influences that elected politicians must contend with, are often denied the normal relationships afforded the rest of us.
It is a burden carried by no other group of public servants, including the president, and the isolation and detachment that come with this honor obviously get heavier to bear with each passing year of active membership. This is particularly the case for those who occupy the exalted position of chief justice of the United States, in whose responsibility rests not only the direction of the highest bench but the nation’s entire judiciary.
Therefore, down through the decades of American history, the chiefs, as they are commonly referred to by their associates and nearly everyone else, not only are the most misunderstood, but they also are frequently forced to accept the blame, warranted or not, heaped on them by disagreeing political factions. That is especially true of those selected on the belief they will pursue one philosophical direction only to take another course. Earl Warren, the Republican politician turned supreme jurist who dismayed his political allies by leading one of the most historically liberal courts, is an example.
Unlike Warren, the late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist was mainly true to the predicted ideology of his nomination. But on his death in 2005, the thousands of words written about his positions, philosophy and rulings contained hardly anything about his personal life - his friends or his day-to-day living habits outside the court. His personal life remained nearly in as much obscurity as it was at the time of his nomination when President Richard Nixon allegedly mispronounced his name when discussing his appointment. He was a little-recognized Justice Department official from Arizona (actually a Wisconsin native) who was a former state prosecutor and judge with an important but largely behind-the-scenes role in Sen. Barry Goldwater’s losing 1964 presidential race.
Without question, that is the way he wanted it. He was a strong and persistent guardian of his privacy, even when his non-public life crept into print during an addiction to painkillers for a back problem or the death of his beloved wife. Even then, he remained a mystery to most, eschewing the highly visible venues of the District of Columbia, granting press interviews almost never and seeking solace in his loss only with a few trusted friends and family. One of these was the international journalist, author and former newspaper publisher Herman Obermayer, as was Mr. Obermayer’s wife, Betty Nan.
The Obermayers had become close friends of the Rehnquists years earlier, and the two men in particular shared a common interest in literature, poetry, tennis, movies, history and their service in World War II. Both men were well matched intellectually, and they shared a fundamentally conservative view of government and politics, with ample room for disagreement - especially in the area of the First Amendment, where the journalist’s views were unsurprisingly different from those of the jurist.
In an important new book merely called “Rehnquist,” Mr. Obermayer fills some of the missing gaps in the personal picture of one of the most controversial yet intellectually respected and intriguing judges in the court’s existence, first as an associate justice and then for 16 years as the chief. In that period, he presided over only the second presidential impeachment trial in U.S. history and the decision that put a president in the White House.
Mr. Obermayer’s account is remarkable in that it never crosses the line of sensationalism, nor does it take advantage of the friendship he coveted and clearly still does. Yet the author is not afraid to disagree with his pal’s fiscal tight-fistedness, his smoking until the end, his religious ambiguity and a number of other areas where it is possible for two friends to question each other. The journalist presents an understated but definitive portrait of an unusual man whose born personal inclinations were bolstered by the natural necessities for privacy imposed on him by his public service.
Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.