- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 23, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

REHNQUIST: A PERSONAL PORTRAIT OF THE DISTINGUISHED CHIEF JUSTICE OF THE UNITED STATES

By Herman J. Obermayer Threshold Editions, $27, 280 pages

Reviewed by Donald Lambro

The day before the 2000 presidential election, Chief Justice William Rehnquist placed nearly a dozen bets on who would carry key states, including the soon-to-be-disputed Florida vote that would come before him in one of the Supreme Court’s most historic decisions.

Among his many and varied interests, Rehnquist liked to gamble on just about anything, from a coming snowfall accumulation to who would win a presidential primary. But the 2000 election bet that he made with his close friend Herman Obermayer, the longtime Virginia newspaper editor and publisher who wrote this warm and illuminating memoir, would have made news headlines if it had been known at the time. It wasn’t.

Over nearly two decades, these two men, who came from very different professional backgrounds and met by chance in a tennis doubles match, found they had much in common, from their love of poetry, musical lyrics and classic free-market economics to laying some bets on political contests. Not for big money, mind you, just a dollar or two on each wager, but serious money nonetheless for the frugal jurist, who shunned any kind of ostentation, even to the point of subtracting the sales tax when figuring the 15 percent tip he left restaurant waiters.

The wagers were made by fax, and the Supreme Court was sort of the betting parlor where Mr. Obermayer and his wife, Betty Nan, sent their bets to Rehnquist’s secretary, Janet Tramonte, and she faxed the jurist’s bets back to them.

The betting games began in earnest after the death of Rehnquist’s wife in 1991 and continued for much of the next 1 1/2 decades until his death in September of 2005 of thyroid cancer.

“In the beginning, it was simple. We each bet one dollar on one or two close races, shook hands and paid off the next time we had dinner together,” Mr. Obermayer writes. “But in a few years, without deliberate planning, the scope of our betting expanded. The money involved remained insignificant. The wagering terms, however, became complicated.”

“Sometimes we simply chose a winner. More often we wagered on spread, voter percentage or by what percentage each party would win in a legislature,” Mr. Obermayer said. “After our election cards grew lengthy and complicated, it became necessary to record our bets in writing.”

Mr. Obermayer admits he had “some reticence about using the chambers of the chief justice of the United States as a betting parlor. But when I questioned Bill about it, he brushed me aside,” saying his wife “loves being a part of all this.”

The betting in the titanic political battle between Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore turned even more complex and comprehensive, however. “We bet one dollar on each of twenty-two different contests,” including who would win 10 closely contested states, which Senate candidates would win in the nine most competitive races, the final Electoral College vote, and the party ratio in the House and Senate in the new Congress.

Rehnquist bet that Mr. Bush would crush Mr. Gore by 320 to 218 electoral votes, and he confidently put Florida in the Republican column.

The vote in the Sunshine State turned out to be a nail-biter, however, and by Thursday, Nov. 9, it was clear the state would decide the outcome of the presidential election. An automatic machine recount showed Mr. Bush had won by 327 votes, and large legal teams were formed on both sides in what was shaping up to be a major battle in the courts.

In the week that followed, Mr. Obermayer and Rehnquist chatted by phone on the Florida electoral turmoil. “The notion that Bill could be involved in resolving the contested election never crossed my mind. If it had crossed his, he certainly did not let on,” Mr. Obermayer recalled.

On Nov. 27, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris certified Mr. Bush as the winner. Mr. Gore appealed to the state Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor, and the constitutional case was headed for the highest court in the land.

One week later, Rehnquist faxed the following letter to the Obermayers calling off his bets. “It now appears remotely possible that the Florida election case might come to our Court. I therefore feel obliged to cancel all my election bets in any way dependent on the Florida vote. I hope you will agree to let me do this,” he wrote.

Mr. Obermayer quickly faxed back, “Of course! Let’s cancel the entire 2000 election bet.” In the end, the Supreme Court ruled in Mr. Bush’s favor by a vote of 5 to 4. Rehnquist voted with the majority.

This is one of a number of fascinating stories in this warmhearted and honest portrait of the nation’s 16th chief justice, a man whom Mr. Obermayer says “I was proud to call my friend.”

We learn that Rehnquist, a Lutheran who was unfairly accused by his critics of anti-Semitism during his 1986 confirmation hearings as a result of a restrictive covenant on a home in Vermont, regularly took part in the Obermayer family’s Passover Seder.

They met in a dysfunctional doubles tennis game in the mid-1980s at the Washington Golf and Country Club and quickly agreed they would prefer playing singles. Neither knew much about the other, but their conversations lengthened over the ensuing months, and their friendship slowly grew as they learned they “shared core values and intellectual interests.”

They talked of books that had influenced their lives and their thinking, especially Friedrich Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom,”which they both had read as soldiers in World War II.

They enjoyed playing word- and subject-association games in which they quoted passages from their favorite poems - Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” was one of Rehnquist’s favorites - and traded memorable lyrics from Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern’s “Ol’ Man River,” and George and Ira Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.”

They took in dinner and a movie almost every week after Rehnquist’s wife died. But the two men’s taste in movies was far from intellectual. They went in for comedies, farces and plenty of laughs, such as “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” or “Old School,” whose ad line was “All the fun of college, none of the education.”

Rehnquist headed the court under four presidents, guiding it through some of the most controversial constitutional disputes of our time; wrote several important works on historical constitutional issues; and presided over President Clinton’s impeachment trial in the Senate. Yet he was a remote and little-known figure to most Americans, and after his wife died, a lonely man who dreaded Saturday nights.

Mr. Obermayer’s absorbing portrait reveals an interesting, sensitive, highly disciplined man of unshakable integrity who lived simply and did not shrink from the tough, deeply divisive legal battles when called upon to do his duty as the highest jurist in the land.

Despite his dour image, Rehnquist had a mischievous and playful sense of humor. In the last year of his illness, when he was being driven home from work, he caught his driver daydreaming at a stoplight after it had turned green. He leaned over and gently said, “That’s all the colors they have.”

Donald Lambro is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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