It's good thing that John Roberts has been universally described as decent, funny, civil and fair, since he may be joining a court with a long history of pugilists, ideologues and misanthropes who have somehow made it past the U.S. Senate. Justice James Clark McReynolds, who served until 1941, was, in the words of historian David Garrow, a "drooling anti-Semite" who refused to speak with fellow Justices Louis Brandeis and Benjamin Cardozo or have his picture taken with them. Chief Justice Fred Moore Vinson was a glorified drinking buddy of President Harry Truman's whose sudden death was hailed by fellow Justice Felix Frankfurter as "the first indication I have ever had that there is a God." Justice Potter Stewart's friends said Stewart resigned partly because he couldn't stand Warren Burger any longer; Burger, he said, was like the show captain on an ocean liner who entertains passengers in the dining room while the real captain steers the ship.
To listen to people who have known him longest, what sets Roberts apart is not so much his individual virtues but how they marry: a great talker who listens well, a natural talent who works unnaturally hard, a regular guy who moonlights as a legal star. In his prime-time introduction of his nominee to take the place of retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, President George W. Bush drove right past the fact that Roberts is a reliably conservative fellow who would not "legislate from the bench" and lingered instead on the career and character that would make him so valuable on the court, and so invulnerable to attack.
He talked of Roberts' emerging from Harvard with honors and summers working in a steel mill, introduced his family, talked of his heart, which is Bush code for "he's my kind of guy, so I don't need to get into specifics." To focus more on where the man comes from than on anything he has argued in 24 years as a government and corporate lawyer is not just a political smoke screen. It is a reminder, first, that it is a lawyer's art to offer arguments detached from beliefs; and second, that whatever issues the court faces, a Justice likely to serve for 25 years is bound to travel down legal roads that have not yet even been paved.
As the first nominee of the Internet age, Roberts will now be strip-searched by uncountable bloggers and interest groups even before the Senate starts confirmation hearings, probably in September. Between now and then, the great inquisitors, amateur and professional, will look at every person he has known, every penny he has spent, every word he has written and every clue he has dropped about where his interests lie. But for all the predictions of a nuclear winter once the choice was announced, the political climate so far has remained remarkably calm. President Bush, having held the decision close, could only savor the spectacle of paralyzed Democrats grasping for something to object to, liberal activists being forced by the sheer weight of Roberts' rectitude to say they would withhold judgment. The New York Times profile poured across the front page to two more full pages inside without uncovering one single person who knew Roberts and had a harsh word to say.