You're John G. Roberts, circa 1982 to 1986, and life is looking momentous indeed: You're a hotshot lawyer in your late twenties or early thirties, working in the White House -- the White House -- for a president you revere.
Then the actual work starts.
And you're asked to review an executive order titled "Delegation to the Secretary of State regarding loans made to Poland."
And to write a memo on how "the fourth bullet item in coal leasing materials should be revised."
And to vet a draft of a presidential proclamation for "National Poison Prevention Week, 1984."
In other words, you are learning that a job in the most glamorous workplace in America hardly guarantees the most glamorous work in America.
Records from Roberts's days as an associate counsel in the Reagan administration reveal a droll and nimble lawyer who was a stickler for rules and meticulous in his reviews. As part of a team of lawyers charged with ensuring White House compliance with numerous laws, rules and government policies, Roberts's papers offer a glimpse of his legal approach to timely issues. They also yield the impression of a young lawyer who was awash in scut work, a fate common among White House staffers up and down the ranks of every administration -- but particularly so among counselors.
"None of us ever got over the gee-whiz aspect of working there," says Peter Rusthoven, a former associate White House counsel who worked closely with Roberts in the Reagan administration. At the same time, Rusthoven says, "you deal with a lot of the trivial flotsam and jetsam that goes with working for the president of the United States. . . . You spend a lot of time hammering on people who want to put the president's name on a jar of jelly beans or something."
Roberts fielded requests for the president to be an honorary chairman of dinners, tributes and charity drives. He wrote memos reviewing letters from prisoners, some of whom wrote several times ("You have not responded directly to Marshall in the past and should not do so now," Roberts wrote in an October 1983 memo to his boss regarding a complaint from a man he describes simply as "a convict.") Roberts also suggested that the White House deny a request from someone who wanted to use the presidential seal on a commemorative belt buckle to honor country music star Roy Acuff.
"We always thought of the White House counsel's office as the anti-fun police," says Republican lobbyist Ed Rogers, a veteran of the Reagan White House who crossed paths occasionally with Roberts. "They were always the ones coming up with a reason not to do things."
Nearly all White House jobs come with what Rogers calls "the grind and grunt work." In his case, Rogers recalls being excited when he was named a White House "point of contact" for the International Olympic Committee. But "I mostly wound up doing things like getting a transit visa for the North Korean delegate to the IOC who wanted to change planes in Chicago on a flight from North Korea to London."
Reagan's counselors received a query from a man who believed that Geraldine Ferraro, Walter Mondale's running mate in 1984, was not qualified to be vice president because the Constitution used the pronoun "he." "We had to send a letter saying the president believes there is no constitutional prohibition on Mrs. Ferraro holding the office of vice president," Rusthoven recalls. "Some of the stuff we dealt with was just ridiculous."
Or simply mundane: scouring presidential appointments and disaster declarations, investigating the "ordinary Americans" that Reagan would highlight in his speeches (in case these "ordinary Americans" turned out to be ordinary Klan members or something).
The counselors also reviewed the congressional testimony of administration appointees, a task that could prove exceedingly grueling.
In an Oct. 19, 1983 memo in which Roberts reviews the "proposed testimony of Roger P. Brandemuehl, acting associate commissioner of INS," to "the sub-committee on courts of the Senate Judiciary Committee," the author's tedium practically drips from the page.
"I have reviewed the testimony and have no objection to it," Roberts wrote to his boss. "Although for the sake of any members of the sub-committee who may be in attendance, I hope that Mr. Brandemuehl is a fast reader."