In gauging the momentous choice President Bush must make in choosing a successor to Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, it is tempting to suppose that his highest priority will be satisfying the conservative interest groups that were unhappy with her rulings on abortion, affirmative action, sodomy and other social issues.
It would be naive to suppose that the clamor from the right will not weigh in his judgment. But my strong impression is that the constituency that is most important is the one inside the White House -- the people who share and, I believe, reflect the president's own deep sense of grievance about the Democrats' past treatment of his judicial nominees.
In every conversation I've had this year with senior White House aides, I have been struck by the emotional tone with which they recount their frustration that Senate Democrats have delayed -- sometimes for years -- confirmation of several of Bush's appointments to the appeals courts just one step below the Supreme Court.
Their aggravation has not been assuaged by the deal this spring, engineered by the bipartisan "Gang of 14," that led to confirmation of three of those judges in return for the postponement of any effort to outlaw future judicial filibusters.
In a meeting Tuesday with Post reporters and editors, presidential adviser Karl Rove said, on the record, that the deal that sprang those three judges marks "an improvement over the last 41/2 years" in the Senate climate and could presage "a fairer process" for the Supreme Court nominee. But many White House folks seem to regard this agreement simply as proof that the Democrats had been obstinate and as evidence that these judges -- and others like them -- long since should have been approved.
I do not know if Bush himself expresses equal anger about the fate of his court choices, but his actions -- notably his sending back this year the names of seven judges previously blocked in the Senate -- do not suggest any mood to compromise.
It is equally true that many Democratic senators feel passionately that Bush has abused the system by going outside what they regard as the mainstream to stack the courts with conservative judges.
Given these explosive ingredients, one has to be a "cockeyed optimist" to foresee a compromise choice who could be easily confirmed with bipartisan support.
Still, one can hope. O'Connor, as I wrote back in October 2003, had made herself perhaps "the most influential single public official in this land" because she was so often the swing vote, the balance wheel on a divided bench. She acquired that authority by her legal reasoning, but also by her shrewd political instincts.
Those instincts were honed by her service as majority leader of the Arizona Senate, a position she held before she began her judicial career in that state. And, as Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute argued in a recent essay [op-ed, July 3], it is a reminder that the high court, which now will have no one with experience in elective office, could benefit from the appointment of another politician.
I can think of a dozen current and former governors, senators and representatives -- mainstream Republicans such as Marc Racicot, Lindsey Graham or Asa Hutchinson -- who could fill that role and be confirmed without much of a battle.
But my gut tells me the president is not looking to duck a fight.
Gaylord Nelson, the former Wisconsin governor and senator who died this week, deserved all the accolades he received as the founder of Earth Day, the author of landmark environmental legislation and, truly, the conscience of his generation when it came to conservation.
Beyond that, Nelson was prescient in his skepticism about the Vietnam War and courageous in his defense of civil liberties. But what will really be missed is his delightful, mocking sense of humor and his storyteller's gift for the outrageous but all-too-true anecdote. The warmth of his personality, magnified by the hospitality of his wife, Carrie Lee Nelson, embraced people whose political views were far from Nelson's own liberalism -- Republicans such as former defense secretary Mel Laird and unreconstructed southern conservatives such as senator Jim Eastland of Mississippi.
Friendship was much more important to him than ideology. He was an exemplar of the precious but increasingly rare tradition of politics that sought to do what was right but never allowed itself for an instant the sin of self-righteousness.