The day after President Bush tapped John Roberts for the Supreme Court, senators rushed to the TV cameras and the Senate floor to praise the choice.
"Very affable . . . outstanding legal credentials . . . an able lawyer . . . impressive . . . a very nice man."
And those were the Democrats.
Never in the recent history of the United States Senate have so many waited so long for so little. This summer's Supreme Court confirmation was billed as an epic battle between liberals and conservatives for the soul of the country. But when Roberts's black sedan arrived at the Capitol yesterday afternoon for the first of his courtesy calls on senators, the mood was more of a coronation than a showdown.
The well-coached Roberts offered nothing but the mildest of pleasantries. And Democrats, though voicing "concern," were avoiding a fight.
"I will not prejudge the president's nominee," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), who famously prejudged Robert Bork, announced on the Senate floor.
"It is critical . . . that we not prejudge a nominee," affirmed Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vt.), the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) called a news conference to declare open-mindedness. "I have no idea how I'm going to vote," he said.
The Democratic acquiescence flustered the pugilistic Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex). He visited the Senate press gallery to say he sensed a Democratic "game plan" to defeat Roberts. "I'm just pointing out some troublesome signs . . . that I find disconcerting," he warned. But his evidence of this was thin: a Kennedy statement asking whether Roberts is "on the side of justice and individual liberties."
Cornyn, sitting on the edge of an armchair and revealing cowboy boots with a Texas seal, tried for indignation. "Judges are not to be on anybody's side," he said.
From the moment Roberts arrived at the East Front of the Capitol, it was clear he was Bush's kind of guy: He was five minutes early. Compact and youthful, his hair blowing in the breeze, he buttoned his suit jacket and gave Majority Leader Bill Frist a two-handed embrace. In the corridor outside the Senate chamber, Roberts, escorted by former senator Fred Thompson, stopped for a word with Sen. John Warner (R-Va.).
"You're in good hands," Warner assured the nominee.
He was certainly in many hands. Within moments of his arrival, Roberts, under the watchful eyes of 75 reporters and photographers, was gripped by a grinning Frist, Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Arlen Specter (Pa.) "An outstanding Supreme Court nominee," Frist said.
"Outstanding choice," added McConnell.
"Delighted," echoed Specter.
The only clear opposition to Roberts was found outside the Capitol. There, across from the Russell Building, about 30 abortion rights demonstrators marched. "Hey, hey, ho, ho, conservative justices have got to go," the young women chanted. "Ho, ho, hey, hey, abortion rights are here to stay."
The object of the protest was busy across the street playing the strong, silent type. Roberts grinned modestly, almost bashfully, as the senators praised him. When he spoke, he said nothing. His statement in front of the cameras, 52 words in total, included three "thank yous" and two "very gratefuls." The only hint at his judicial philosophy was his assertion that "I appreciate and respect the role of the Senate in the appointment process." He ignored all questions, even "How's your day been?"
The notoriously off-message judiciary chairman joined in the good behavior, indulging in only one jab at the White House. Specter told reporters he got a call from Bush announcing the Roberts decision at 7:44 -- the exact minute the news crossed the wires. Specter said he replied: "Thank you very, very much for the advance notice."
The mild behavior of both Democrats and Republicans proved a letdown for the Capitol Hill journalists, who had prepared for a confirmation apocalypse. To accommodate the media mob -- there were more than 100 cameras, photographers, soundmen and reporters greeting Roberts at his stops -- Frist's chief of staff, Eric Ueland, vacated his office and had the furniture removed so that photos of Frist with Roberts could be taken.
As the cameras took position beneath a large photo of a cattle drive, Ueland pointed at photos of the Frist kin that had been placed on the mantel and asked, "Don't I have a handsome-looking family?"
Just over an hour later, the whole thing -- right down to the "very grateful" -- was reenacted in the office of Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). An hour after that, the photo op moved to Leahy's office. There, the crush was so bad that a photographer fell over a table and a Senate aide asked if the judge would do the greeting twice.
"They're just making chitchat," someone in the judge's entourage said.
"Can they make chitchat twice?" the Senate aide wondered.
Finally, Roberts himself was moved to comment on the hubbub.
"I think it's for Thompson," the judge said.
"It must be for Thompson," Leahy agreed.
From the back of the room, the former senator retorted: "Why didn't they ever show up when I was around here?"