Nice summer for John Roberts's career.
He goes from being a relative unknown to being The Man to being, as of yesterday morning, THE MAN -- all in a few weeks.
If Roberts, 50, is confirmed before the next session, he would be the youngest chief justice since John Marshall, who was 45 when he was sworn in 204 years ago. Fifty is Young Turk territory among Supreme Court justices, if not for the rest of us. Among chief justices, 50 is a Turk in diapers.
Roberts would assume the top position in the third branch of the federal government. He would swear in the successor to the president who just nominated him. And he would succeed the chief justice -- William Rehnquist, who died Saturday at 80 -- for whom Roberts himself clerked. From Day One, he would occupy the largest seat on the Supreme Court -- the chief's seat is physically bigger than the others -- and serve with justices who began their legal careers when he was still in a highchair.
It all fixes Roberts as a seminal figure in the annals of whiz kids.
He is Doogie Howser, Rudolph taking over as lead reindeer (and getting a whole song written about him) and the youngest Osmonds -- Donny and Marie -- taking over the family act. He is Dan Quayle with spell check, leapfrogging the GOP older guard to become, overnight, the 41-year-old vice president. He is Michael Corleone in the "The Godfather: Part II," unbothered by need to rise patiently through the ranks.
Okay, so maybe it's a stretch to compare Justice Antonin Scalia to the character played by Dennis Quaid in the 2004 film "In Good Company," whose new whiz-kid boss -- played by Topher Grace -- is considerably younger and less experienced than he (and who also happens to be sleeping with his daughter). But it's worth asking: What happens when three organizational prototypes -- New Kid, Whiz Kid and Top Dog -- all combine at the same time, in the same person?
If confirmed, Roberts will find out.
"It's going to take a great deal of emotional intelligence on John Roberts's part, which I'm confident he has," says Michael Maccoby, a Washington psychoanalyst and anthropologist who has studied the psychology of leadership in business and government. Maccoby distinguishes Roberts from an array of young leaders -- such as Robert McNamara, who took over as president of Ford Motor Co. at 44, and McGeorge Bundy, who became dean of the faculty of arts and sciences at Harvard at 34 -- whom he describes as "radicals," or "narcissistic leaders." Such types tend to be arrogant and show disregard for traditional protocol.
The Supreme Court is hardly a Silicon Valley start-up with a freewheeling sensibility suited to young leaders and radical thinkers. For starters, there is no board of directors that can fire Roberts. "The Senate is John Roberts's board of directors," says Erik Brynjolsson, a professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management. And if he gets past the Senate, Brynjolsson says, "there's nobody who can boot him off the island if they don't like his work."
The lifetime appointment changes a central dynamic of whiz-kid leadership. What's more, the Supreme Court is an institution rich in tradition, grounded in precedent -- and whose customs Roberts understands. "It will certainly help Roberts that he knows the court and that he clerked there," says Rick Garnett, a law professor at the University of Norte Dame who, like Roberts, clerked for Rehnquist.
Unlike an institution such as Congress, the Supreme Court places less emphasis on seniority, Garnett says. There also tends to be less personal jealousy and ego: "These people don't have to stand for election," he says, so there is less emphasis on taking credit and getting out front on matters.
"Maybe I'm an idealist," Garnett adds, "but there is a certain sense that these justices are in this honored profession. It seems like they're doing something loftier than, say, highway appropriations."