It was the moment for which the nation had been waiting -- okay, well, at least those who'd managed to get a seat in the hearing room in the Russell Building on Capitol Hill yesterday.
The confirmation hearings for John G. Roberts Jr. were unfolding against the backdrop of Hurricane Katrina, and though a few senators mentioned it early on, as the day progressed in Room 325, its urgency seemed a million miles away. The caucus room with its high ceiling, huge columns and glittering chandeliers has been the site of other history-making moments. It was where in 1987 Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court began its descent into defeat, and where Clarence Thomas crossed swords with Anita Hill. Yesterday, it was where Roberts finally spoke on his own behalf in his bid to become the next Supreme Court chief justice.
A sea of media, 140 or so strong, and the few members of the public who managed to get seats in the very back of the room had been waiting through one senator's speech after another to hear the 50-year-old federal judge work his rhetorical magic. Here was the man who had argued 39 cases before the Supreme Court, and won most. Here was the man touted as a lawyer's lawyer, a man his colleagues have praised as knowing the power of combining legal brilliance with a cool confidence. And here was the man, who, if President Bush has his way, will be confirmed as the nation's 17th chief justice, elevated to a position that could shape the quality of life for Americans for decades to come.
So, naturally, his words were what everyone wanted to hear.
And speak he did -- for all of eight minutes. He was introduced shortly before 3:30, and he was done with his opening statement soon after.
Talk about judicial restraint.
As does any lawyer, John Roberts knows that anything he says can be used against him. And so yesterday he was a man of "thank yous" -- to the senators lined up before him, to Bush for the nomination, to his family and his mentors without whose help and sacrifices he would not be sitting where he was, he said.
He paid respects once again to the man whose casket he helped to carry up the Supreme Court steps last week, William H. Rehnquist. Roberts clerked for the chief justice, and in one of those odd, novel-like twists, he may soon replace him.
"I talked last week with the nurses who helped care for him over the past year, and I was glad to hear from them that he was not a particularly good patient," Roberts said. "He chafed at the limitations they tried to impose. His dedication to duty over the past year was an inspiration to me and, I know, to many others."
Roberts went on to speak of his philosophy, one that demands a limited role for judges. He compared them to umpires, adding, "Nobody ever went to a ballgame to see the umpire." Judges are more than umpires, of course, and Roberts tried to assure the panel that his thinking has evolved since his early eager days as a young lawyer working in the Republican administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
When the questioning begins, there will be those who will press him to be more revealing. But yesterday Roberts spent most of the day in silence, sitting through the 10-minute speeches of the Judiciary Committee members, which added up to hours.
Roberts was as still as he was silent, his face a wall. His lips were a tight line, except on the few occasions when he laughed at a joke -- mainly the recurring one about his relative youth and appearance of good health. There were times, too, when someone seemed to make a point that he appreciated, and he would reward that senator with the slightest of nods, as when Joseph Biden (D-Del.) talked about the issues of technology and privacy that no doubt the high court would face in the future.
There were what passed for harsh words from Democratic senators such as New York's Charles Schumer, who warned that he would be unsparing in his questioning, and California's Dianne Feinstein, who said she would be unable to vote for anyone she believed would overturn Roe v. Wade. And there were words of encouragement from Republicans such as Orrin Hatch, who warned Roberts not to be trapped into answering questions that compromised him as a judge.
Roberts took it all in, his eyes often wide and glistening under the glare of the camera lights, but revealing nothing.
It was representative democracy at work, though it was occurring in a room where if you didn't know better, you might think democracy was almost exclusively white. The Judiciary Committee itself is all white, and Feinstein is its only female member.
"Things went as I expected," said Ted Shaw of the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund. "I think Roberts's opening statement was eloquent. I've seen him in court. But the question for me is who is he."
Roberts's moments of greatest animation occurred before the hearings began, when he sat with his wife, Jane, and children, Jack and Josie. Jack wore a suit with shorts and a bow tie. Josie wore a blue dress and a bow in her hair. It was a moment reminiscent of the summer day when Bush first nominated Roberts to replace Sandra Day O'Connor. Jack didn't dance this time, though. He simply climbed into his father's lap. The cameras flashed, and Roberts didn't have to say a word.
The nominee and his wife, Jane, are tight-lipped before the proceedings begin.
In a packed room in the Russell Building, John Roberts is sworn in as his confirmation hearings get underway.