Few Have Felt Beat of Roberts's Political Heart

By Michael Grunwald and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 24, 2005

E. Barrett Prettyman Jr. fondly recalls working with John G. Roberts Jr. at Hogan & Hartson, the blue-chip Washington law firm where Prettyman was a renowned Supreme Court advocate, and Roberts was quickly becoming one. The two lawyers ate lunch together almost every day, and Prettyman says they became close friends, even though he's a staunch liberal and Roberts is a staunch conservative.

At least he thinks Roberts is a staunch conservative.

He's always assumed Roberts is a staunch conservative.

Actually, now that he racks his brain, he's not so sure.

"You know, I must have had a thousand lunches with John, and I can't think of a single thing he's said that would specify his politics," says Prettyman, a World War II veteran who once served as an aide to Robert F. Kennedy. "We were all under the impression that he's a conservative, but he always talked generalities. He's not the type to lay it all out."

Now that President Bush has nominated Roberts to serve on the court, many Americans are under the impression he's a staunch conservative. He's got a conservative résumé and a conservative lifestyle; he was chosen by a conservative president. But his public record and personal history suggest that his conservatism may not resemble the conservatism of Antonin Scalia or Clarence Thomas, Bush's favorite justices.

Roberts is certainly conservative in some senses of the word. He's a strait-laced, buttoned-down midwesterner, a creature of the legal establishment, respectful of tradition and deferential to authority. He's a devout Roman Catholic and a loyal Republican who clerked for then-Associate Justice William H. Rehnquist, worked for then-Solicitor General Kenneth W. Starr and served in the Reagan White House. He's a grammar snob; he once critiqued a Justice Department memo that sounded like "an awkward translation from Bulgarian."

But Roberts has always held his politics close to his vest. He said last week that his core values as a justice would be "modesty" and "stability." If his first 50 years on Earth were a prelude to an ideological crusade, he's done an excellent job of disguising it.

The Prodigy

John Glover Roberts Jr. was born in Buffalo, but as a boy he moved to Long Beach, Ind., an all-white, predominantly Catholic, largely Republican town on Lake Michigan. His father, John Sr., was an electrical engineer at Bethlehem Steel's new mill in the area, and later an assistant general manager at the plant; his mother, Rosemary, was a homemaker. John and his three sisters all attended Notre Dame Catholic School, where he wore a uniform of navy pants, a white shirt and a navy tie. Every Sunday, the tight-knit family went to Mass.

"They were very sincere about their beliefs, and they practiced them," said Joan Langley, Notre Dame's church secretary. "They were absolutely toe the line and obey the rules."

By the time John was a teenager, the Roberts family had moved into a four-bedroom Tudor-style home and joined the Long Beach Country Club, where John and his parents spent many happy hours on the golf course. John had also blossomed into an intellectual prodigy. "He did not boast of his brilliance," says his eighth-grade math teacher, Dorothea Liddell. "He was just brilliant, and everyone accepted that."

In December 1968, John applied to La Lumiere, a rigorous all-boys Catholic prep school in the area, and his earnest letter to the school suggests his early drive. "I've always wanted to stay ahead of the crowd, and I feel that the competition at La Lumiere will force me to work as hard as I can," he wrote in neat cursive. "I won't be content to get a good job by getting a good education, I want to get the best job by getting the best education."

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company