WILL THE REAGAN administration be the first to appoint a woman to the Supreme Court? Consider what has happened to women trying to get lesser positions. So far, the Reagan adminstration has compiled the worst appointment record for getting women into good jobs since anybody started counting. While the story of what happened to Helen Delich Bentley may be more blatant than most, it shows how a qualified woman got disqualified and how implausible it is to believe a woman will be appointed to the court.
Bentley, a former maritime editor of The Baltimore Sun, is a tough-minded Republican, who headed the Federal Maritime Commission under president Nixon and Ford. She had impeccable party credentials, having been named "GOP Women of the Year" in 1972, and she had the support of the Republican National Congressional Committee in her unsuccessful campaign for Congress from Balitmore County in 1980. Bentley was not only under consideration for the job of undersecretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration, but she says had the backing of Secretary John Lehman and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. Not bad, for a woman.
Then a routine FBI check showed she had a campaign debt and two lawsuits pending against her, problems far smaller than what some of the nominees have carried with them into Senate confirmation hearing rooms. This, after all, is an administration that has sent to the Senate names of people whose companies and foundation have been linked to illegal payoffs to organized crime and hanky panky with multinational corporations. But this administration fought hard for Ray Donovan and fought hard for Ernest Lefever and was prepared to fight hard for Attorney General William French Smith, whose commitment to enforcing civil rights legislation came into question in light of his membership in a male-only club.But there were no fighters for Helen Bentley.
She says the lawsuit against the campaign has been negotiated to a settlement and a business lawsuit is being resolved, but that she was never given an opportunity to resolve these problems before her nomination was dropped at the level of top White House aides Edwin Meese III, Michael K. Deaver and James A. Baker III.
Bentley's biggest problem, it turned out, had little to do with the FBI checks. It had to do with John Warner, the former undersecretary and secretary of the Navy, who is now a conservative Republican senator from Virginia. The well-connected Warner put a "hold" on her nomination. And she got a message from Secretary Lehman that these "three warts [the campaign debt and the lawsuits], plus Warner's attitude would make it too difficult to get me through."
She had two conversations with Warner about his opposition to her. "The first time, he said he had a question about whether I could climb on and off a ship. He said he wouldn't want the U.S. to be embarrassed because I couldn't climb on a ship out at sea. During the 25 years I was Sun maritime editor I probably climbed on and off ships practically every day, out in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, ships underway, etc. I'm sure I've climbed on and off more ships than many undersecretaries of the Navy have. He said he wasn't aware of that, but it didn't change his attitude."
Warner, who became qualified for his political appointments by serving as a speech writer and advance man in the 1968 Nixon campaign, told Bentley to talk to two or three admirals "to get their views on me," she says. "They called him up and said they thought I'd be great." Then Bentley and Warner had a second conversation. "Sen. Warner told me that he didn't think the Navy was ready for a woman and he also told me that if he had to vote, he probably would vote against me."
(Bill Kling, Warner's spokesman, said Warner had his own choice for the job, but he declined to give Warner's version of his conversations with Bentley, saying the senator regards such conversations as confidential.)
Late in last year's campaign, Ronald Reagan said that he would name a woman to the Supreme Court among his first appointments. That was back when the polls showed he was running weakly among women voters who perceived him as war-prone and insensitive to women's concerns.
So far, the discussion about who will be nominated to the court has been conducted on a highminded level, with the White House stating that its criteria are "excellence, competence and judicial temperament." But the decision on who to nominate will be in the end, political, and the question then becomes whether it is politically necessary, now, to put a woman on the highest court. Who, in the pervasively sexist atmosphere in which Reagan administration appointments have been made so far, will argue that it is?
Betty Heitman, the cochairman of the National Republican Committee who has pressed hard for women's appointments, believes Reagan will appoint at least three justices, and that eventually one will be a woman.
But as for this time, she says, "I'd bet against it."