John & Katrina

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 8, 2005; 9:42 AM

While the rest of us are still shell-shocked over the mass casualties of Katrina, Pat Robertson says John Roberts can "be thankful that a tragedy has brought him some good."

Thankful? (Because America won't want any "inflamed rhetoric" at the hearings, the televangelist says.) Not the most sensitive comment I can imagine, with more than half of New Orleans inundated with disease-laden water and an untold number of bodies still to be pulled out.

But it is also undeniable that the killer hurricane is changing the climate in which next week's hearings will be held--both in terms of political rhetoric and by blowing out most news coverage that doesn't have a New Orleans or Biloxi dateline. In fact, even though we're talking about the next chief justice of the United States, much of the blog chatter this week has been about Katrina, not John.

In that narrow sense, President Bush's decision to elevate his nominee to the top court seat after William H. Rehnquist's death was a shrewd move. The media consensus by last week was that Roberts, the affable conservative and former Reagan White House lawyer, was a sure bet for confirmation.

By upgrading the appellate judge to his nominee for chief while the entire country is focused on the hurricane, Bush does nothing to disturb the Washington expectation that Roberts is a shoo-in (there are, after all, 55 Republican senators) and guarantees a modest level of coverage. He avoids a messy battle over another nominee--required even if that person is already a member of the Supremes, a la Scalia--and can name his second nominee (for O'Connor's seat) down the road, perhaps after the vote on confirming Roberts.

Given the polarization in the country (a Washington Post poll finds 74 percent of GOPers approving of Bush's handling of Katrina and just 17 percent of Democrats), the opposition party is trying to tie the two story lines together. Senate Dems, reports the Boston Globe say "they will invoke the vast disparities in income and living conditions laid bare by the Hurricane Katrina disaster to sharpen their questioning of Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. at his confirmation hearings next week.

"The scenes of devastation featuring primarily poor African-American residents in New Orleans have highlighted the widening gap between rich and poor, said Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

"With Roberts having urged a narrow interpretation of civil rights laws in the past, Senate Democrats will link the scenes of economic hardship with the constitutional and legal issues that surround efforts to address racial and economic inequalities, he said . . . In addition, civil rights leaders whom Democrats have called to appear at the hearings said they also intend to refer to the scenes from the hurricane-ravaged region."

With the Roberts nomination, fairly or unfairly, seen as lacking drama, much of the media chatter has focused on whom Bush will pick for the other vacancy. The oft-quoted Bill Kristol editor of the Weekly Standard, says Bush has complicated his own strategy--and he fears a Gonzales selection:

"With John Roberts sailing toward confirmation last week, President Bush had the O'Connor seat 'won.' The Court was set to move one click to the right (so to speak). Then Chief Justice William Rehnquist died. The president chose to move Roberts over to fill the Rehnquist slot--thereby re-opening the vacancy created by Sandra Day O'Connor's retirement.

"One understands the attraction of Roberts as chief. But with this action, in one fell swoop, the president deprived himself and his supporters of the easiest argument for his next nominee: that surely a re-elected conservative president is entitled to replace a conservative justice--Rehnquist--with another conservative.

"So now everything rides on Bush's nerve. Is he willing to fill the O'Connor seat with a conservative, and can he then make an effective case for that nominee to the Senate and the country?"

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