A personal portrait of Justice Rehnquist

It is, as its title indicates, a very personal portrait of Rehnquist, the Milwaukee native who served as a lowly Supreme Court law clerk before moving to Arizona to join Barry Goldwater’s law firm and become a legal adviser to his 1964 presidential campaign, which led to his return to Washington in 1969 as a Nixon appointee to the Justice Department, and ultimately to his elevation to the Supreme Court in 1969.

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Obermayer’s book is neither a scholarly analysis of Rehnquist’s unabashedly conservative judicial philosophy nor an assessment of his lasting legacy, which figures to rank him high among his predecessors.

That task will have to wait for future scholars, as well as the passage of enough time to make an objective evaluation of the Rehnquist court.

But Obermayer’s book is probably the best one that will be written to help future legal scholars, as well as average citizens, understand the man who became the fourth-longest-serving chief justice, including 19 years as chief justice under four presidents, and only the second chief justice to preside over the impeachment trial of a president.

Rehnquist, who died in 2005, obviously had an impact on 20th-century American life. From the time he wrote a memorandum as a law clerk for Justice Robert Jackson defending the separate-but-equal doctrine shortly before the court discarded that precept in its historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case, to his dissenting opinion in the politically explosive Roe v. Wade abortion ruling, his conservative opinions in a host of landmark decisions guarantee him a prominent place in American jurisprudence.

But it was Rehnquist’s highly visible role in two historic events that is likely to shape history’s view of him. The first was when he presided over the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton in 1999, and the second was his pivotal role in the still-controversial Florida balloting that put George W. Bush in the Oval Office instead of Al Gore.

Obermayer, who was an editor and publisher of newspapers in Northern Virginia and New Jersey, was one of Rehnquists’s closest friends for the last 19 years of his life. Almost exactly the same age, they were neighbors in McLean, Va., their children went to the same high school, and they shared a rich and enduring friendship that extended to almost every aspect of their lives.

Obermayer’s book is most valuable for its insights into Rehnquist’s conservative views, although he makes clear that Rehnquist never talked about his colleagues or cases pending before the court, except in a few unusual circumstances.

“Conservatism was a core value,” Obermayer writes. “It was an essential part of the prism through which Bill viewed life. Its application to politics and government was only a small portion of a larger value system. He respected tradition and order, intellectual and social, as well as political and economic. He believed that the proven and established should not be rejected until there are substantial reasons to believe that the new is superior.”

As Obermayer notes, and as any of the lawyers or reporters who followed the work of the least-understood branch of government were well-aware, Rehnquist kept a high wall between his public and private lives. Obermayer’s book pierces that wall to give us a warts-and-all look at Rehnquist, from his passion for poker and bridge to his grieving over the death of his wife in 1991.

There is much more to this book than can be related in this space, but it is both highly readable and highly informative, and a welcome addition to the vast body of judicial biographical works.