Rehnquist Eulogies Look Beyond Bench

Pallbearers carry the casket of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist down the steps of the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle after the service.
Pallbearers carry the casket of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist down the steps of the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle after the service. (Photos By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

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By Charles Lane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 8, 2005

President Bush led official Washington yesterday in remembrance of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist at a funeral service that offered an unusual personal glimpse of a man whose 33-year Supreme Court tenure made him one of the more consequential figures in U.S. judicial history.

"Many will never forget the sight of this man, weakened by illness, rising to his full height and saying, 'Raise your right hand, Mr. President, and repeat after me,' " Bush said, referring to Rehnquist's appearance at Bush's swearing-in on Jan. 20, three months after the chief justice first learned that he had thyroid cancer. Rehnquist died at 80 on Saturday.

The service took place at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Northwest Washington, and Rehnquist was later laid to rest in a private burial at Arlington National Cemetery.

His friend of more than five decades, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, spoke admiringly of his leadership as chief justice, after he was elevated to that job by President Reagan in 1986. "He never twisted arms to get a vote on a case," she said. Instead, like the expert horsemen on the ranch where she grew up, "he guided us with loose reins and used the spurs only rarely."

For the most part, however, the chief justice's official persona was not the focus of the two-hour service, which was attended not only by the president and first lady Laura Bush but also by Vice President Cheney and his wife, Lynne, all eight associate justices of the court, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate, federal judges, dozens of the chief justice's former law clerks, and members of his Lutheran congregation.

Hardly any mention was made of the content of the many opinions he wrote on the court, or of the deep and often controversial impact on the law he had during a Supreme Court tenure that began with his nomination as an associate justice by President Richard M. Nixon in 1971.

Rather, amid frequent laughter, speaker after speaker recalled the chief justice's rich personal and family life, a life that was, as they told it, free of conflict but full of jokes, family vacations and parlor games.

What emerged from the eulogies was a kind of parallel biography separate and distinct from his amply documented official record -- and much different from the sometimes stern face he showed while running oral arguments at the court. The service made it plain that Rehnquist had left as much of an impact on his loved ones as he did on the country, if not more.

Rehnquist, Bush said, "was devoted to his public duties but not consumed by them."

"To say that family came first with my Dad is to say there was competition. There wasn't," said Nancy Spears, his daughter.

Among the new insights was the fact that Rehnquist, music lover, first suspected his illness when he found that he couldn't sing hymns at church, according to the Rev. George W. Evans Jr., pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in McLean, where Rehnquist attended services for many years.

Evans also said in his sermon that as recently as "a week ago Monday" Rehnquist was still intending to return to the court for the term that begins Oct. 3.


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