Page 2 of 3   <       >

Few Have Felt Beat of Roberts's Political Heart

In fact, Roberts dominated the competition at La Lumiere, earning the best grades in his class every semester. His calculus teacher announced after one test that a few students had received D's and the rest had failed -- except for one boy who had blown the curve by getting every answer right. "We all knew, if there was one 100 percent: Guess who?" one classmate recalls. Assigned to prepare a 15-minute oral report for theology class, Roberts plowed through seven books, then lectured his fellow students for three consecutive days of class.

"If the bell hadn't rung, he could still be speaking now, 32 years later," jokes his teacher, David Kirkby.

John may have seemed like the kind of youth who gets beaten up by the football players, but he was the co-captain of the team, playing running back and linebacker. He was short, slender and slow, but he made up for it in enthusiasm, and he had a gift for seeing the whole field. John was also a wrestler, a student politician, co-editor of the school newspaper, a member of the drama club, and a "sacristan" who helped the school's priest prepare for Mass.

La Lumiere was a $7,000-a-year haven of formality in the Indiana woods, far from the Vietnam War and student protests. Students wore blazers, gray flannel trousers and ties during the day, then changed into suits for dinner. John thrived in this structured environment; his hair, classmates recall, was always cropped a bit closer than theirs. As Kirkby put it, "he wasn't trying to test the limits."

"He is conservative now, and he was conservative then," said Larry Sullivan, his former math teacher.

But if he was conservative in the studious, religious, clean-cut sense, it was not clear he was politically conservative. There was not much ideological debate at La Lumiere; students spent more time arguing what would be on their next test. Teachers sometimes had them discuss issues such as abortion or the 1972 Nixon-McGovern election, but they were assigned one side of the argument, so Roberts learned to analyze issues from every angle.

It was a cloistered childhood, but John did get a brush with the outside world during the summer, cleaning up hazardous materials and emptying grease wells in his father's mill. When he introduced Roberts, Bush implied that the job reflected working-class roots, but it was really a perk for the sons of Bethlehem executives, paying an enviable $12 to $16 an hour. And there was never any real possibility that Roberts would follow his father into the factory for good. He was heading to Harvard.

Joining the Establishment

Roberts arrived in Cambridge in the fall of 1973, during the last throes of the Vietnam protests on campus. But Roberts was there to study, not to rally. He majored in history and graduated summa cum laude in only three years; his thesis on British liberalism in the early 20th century won the prize for the best in his class. He spent the next three years at Harvard Law School, becoming the managing editor of the Law Review, more than holding his own among high-powered classmates who included future luminaries such as Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian Edward J. Larson and Broadway lyricist David Zippel.

Roberts was known as a brilliant, diligent, intellectually curious student without the stereotypical Harvardian need to remind everyone how smart he was. He was humble and self-deprecating, with a dry wit often masked by his midwestern reserve. He seemed genuinely nice. "The thing that strikes you most about him is the disconnect between how cocky he could be and what a phenomenally unassuming man he is," says Norman C. Ankers, now the head of litigation at a Detroit law firm.

Most of his classmates were liberal, and some sensed that he was more conservative. But most of those impressions were based more on his central-casting demeanor than anything he said. He attended church, played squash and dressed neatly; his college roommate told the Harvard Crimson he had ruled out Stanford Law School because his interviewer wore sandals. But he didn't flaunt any GOP loyalties. "I knew nothing of his politics," says another Law Review editor, Robert M. Pozin, now a partner in a Washington law firm. "I can remember political discussions we had at the Law Review . . . but I don't remember John being involved."

Larry Robbins spent hundreds of hours with Roberts at the Law Review, but he says that at the time, he didn't even know whether Roberts was a Republican. But he did get to see how Roberts revered the law. He says that Roberts thought the way the obsessive Professor Kingsfield wanted his students to think in "The Paper Chase," the film about the rigors of Harvard Law School. "John was extremely careful and deliberate," says Robbins, now the lead partner of a Washington firm. "He studied every word, because he believed that words had consequences. If he had a political agenda, it escaped my radar."

A few of his classmates started a Rehnquist Club, honoring the justice who was then considered the most conservative voice on the Supreme Court. Roberts did not join.

<       2        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company