Rehnquist: Stopping to Smell the Roses

After I wrote last week about the justices and graduation speeches, a longtime Supreme Court employee reminded me of the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s advice for graduates: Stop and smell the roses. “Do not let the law be too jealous a mistress,” he used to say. “You must give yourself time not only to do a variety of things, but to allow yourself time to appreciate and enjoy what you are doing.”

A leader of the Court’s conservative revolution, Rehnquist cut a stern, sometimes cold, figure in the courtroom. Yet he had plenty of friends, liberals among them, outside the marble columned building. He was a man of many interests, travels and recreational pursuits.

Some of Rehnquist’s best tales were recalled against the backdrop of a party, charade game or travel adventure. He told me that the offer to be an assistant attorney general in the Nixon Justice Department (the job that first brought him to Washington) was made by his old Phoenix pal Richard Kleindienst (deputy to Attorney General John Mitchell) at a Christmas party. One of Rehnquist’s favorite stories of time with Sandra Day O’Connor’s family arose from a shared two-week pack trip along the Gila River. The Rehnquists and O’Connors also played regular charades and bridge together in Phoenix.

In Washington, Rehnquist took up painting and once missed a State of the Union address because it conflicted with his evening art class. In 1995, when he had four gold stripes sewn on each sleeve of his black robe, he was copying a character in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Iolanthe.” Rehnquist drew on a set of “Iolanthe” lyrics for one of his favorite quips, too: “I did nothing in particular, and I did it very well.”

Rehnquist, in fact, lived large and beyond his legal interests.

Earlier this month, NBC’s Norah O’Donnell asked me on the Chris Matthews’s show if I thought — as some critics did — that Elena Kagan was too “programmed,” too ambitious and calculating in her climb up the legal ladder. My response was that no one gets to the Supreme Court without ambition and that Washington is filled with such focused people who never step outside predictable lines. But in recalling Rehnquist, I’m thinking that maybe it wasn’t always that way.