The extraordinary rise of Antonin Scalia can be traced to more than his legal accomplishments and convivial personality. He also has been well-credentialed and well-connected within the conservative elite.

One period particularly stands out. In 1977, Scalia was a "scholar in residence" at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. Every day, the scholars and fellows gathered for a brown-bag lunch and general discussion. Many of these people, seemingly lost in abstractions then, now hold positions of power.

"The views we held are being tried out and have the imprimatur of the president of the United States," said James C. Miller III, director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Among the other members of the AEI discussion group were Robert H. Bork and Laurence Silberman, both now on the U.S. Court of Appeals here; Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, former U.N. ambassador, and Rudolph G. Penner, director of the Congressional Budget Office. Also present were Irving Kristol, the neoconservative writer who is influential in directing the flow of foundation grants; and Jude Wanniski, then on leave from his job as a Wall Street Journal editorial writer to write "The Way the World Works," which became a supply-side bible.

AEI was then the largest conservative think tank in Washington, and expanding. Former president Gerald R. Ford was a "distinguished fellow" with an office on the premises. Many at AEI had been members of the Nixon and Ford administrations. "It was more a time to think hard than it was a time for any political planning, although we constantly thought about public policy, as it related to various ideas," Silberman said.

What happened at AEI, he said, was the "synergistic impact of being there together. We were all friends, and it sparkled. A cross-pollination took place."

Penner recalled, "We ranged all over the map."

The main currents of conservatism of the Reagan administration flowed within the lunchroom. Kirkpatrick held forth on the errors of President Jimmy Carter's diplomacy. Miller stressed the need for deregulation of the economy. And Wanniski pushed something he called "the supply side."

"I was pulling them away from the ideas embedded in the old guard Ford Republicanism," Wanniski said.

He was frequently challenged by Herbert Stein, an AEI fellow who had been chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under Nixon. "I recall being converted to the wisdom of supply-side economics at that time, largely through Jude Wanniski," Silberman said. "Herb Stein said ruefully that all the non-economists were converted to the supply side."

Scalia was a "serious participant" in the discussions, Wanniski said. "We would talk about prostitution and tax codes, which have both been with us since the beginning of time. The higher the taxes the more prostitutes you have. It's logical according to the law of supply and demand. I felt that Bork and Scalia were especially positive toward the things we talked about. They were intrigued by the impact that economic growth would have on social mores." Wanniski remembered Bork saying: "I love a theory that explains everything."

At these daily sessions Scalia spoke "a great deal," according to Miller, about the separation of powers among the branches of government. He expressed disapproval of the legislative veto of executive agency decisions. His thinking led him to draft a friend-of-the-court brief in the 1983 Chadha case, in which the Supreme Court ruled the legislative veto unconstitutional.

But Scalia was "interested in a broad range of issues and was able to contribute to them," Miller said.

Regulatory questions particularly fascinated Scalia. He became the editor of Regulation magazine, published by AEI, which advocated extensive deregulation -- a position he held when he was appointed to the Court of Appeals in 1982.

"AEI was at the forefront of the deregulation issue," Penner said. "That kind of philosophy obviously has grown in its popularity."

For the illuminati at AEI, the period before Ronald Reagan's presidency was a time when they refined their ideas. "Halcyon days," said Silberman. "When you serve in government you draw on the intellectual capital you have. Once one leaves government, you have an opportunity to restore that intellectual capital. It's almost as if you're pouring water on dry soil."

"Now," Wanniski said of Scalia's nomination to the Supreme Court, "we're seeing the harvest."