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.
O'Connor, who recalled first meeting the future chief justice when he was busing tables at a Stanford dining hall during their student days, remembered an unpublicized emergency room visit in the last week of his life, when a physician asked him who his primary care doctor was.
"My dentist," Rehnquist quipped.
Perhaps the most touching account of Rehnquist's family life came from Rehnquist's granddaughter, Natalie Ann Rehnquist Lynch, who has the same first name as Rehnquist's late wife.
She read from a letter she had written to him earlier this summer, noting that, before he died, the chief justice had asked her to read it at his funeral.
Lynch, a high school student, spoke of Rehnquist's passion for croquet games with his grandchildren and his taste for bologna sandwiches with jelly and mayonnaise.
He would offer a "shiny quarter" to any child who could memorize all 50 state capitals, and he taught them that they could sometimes improve their chances at cards by looking at a reflection of their opponent's hand in a window, Lynch said.
Rehnquist's son, James, said that "no one smelled the roses more than my Dad." He said that, during Rehnquist's time in Washington, he made it home for dinner with his family by 7:15 p.m. For half a century, Rehnquist had never missed a performance of Handel's "Messiah" at Christmas time.
He also revealed that Rehnquist, "vaguely dissatisfied" with law practice in 1968, bought a house in Colorado, "built a weird boat" and took his family for a summer of picking fruit alongside migrant workers.
James Rehnquist said his father considered making the new lifestyle permanent but changed his mind and eventually went to Washington in 1969 as assistant attorney general in the Nixon administration.
Spears spoke of her father's ability to enjoy the simple pleasures in life, from "a ripe pear" to "a distant view of the mountains."
She said that she once asked her father, whose competitive spirit on the tennis court compensated for his modest natural talent, if it was true that he selected law clerks based on their potential as doubles partners for him.
"Not at all," he replied. "That's one of several factors."
Another of the chief justice's favorite pastimes was betting on sports, elections and, as O'Connor recalled, "even the amount of snow that would fall in the courtyard at the court."
"I think the chief bet he could live out another term despite his illness," O'Connor said. "He lost that bet, as did all of us, but he won all the prizes for a life well lived."
Later, as she left the cathedral with the other justices, O'Connor whispered a single word to reporters: "Sad," she said.
Rehnquist was opposed to allowing televised proceedings of the high court, and the same rule prevailed at his send-off. At the request of Rehnquist's family, television cameras were barred from the cathedral. Nor was there any live audio coverage.
Though Rehnquist was a Lutheran, the service took place at a Catholic cathedral after Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the archbishop of Washington, had offered the building to accommodate the large congregation.
Staff writer William Branigan contributed to this report.