In February 1982, Attorney General William French Smith was under fire from conservatives who charged that Democratic holdovers from President Jimmy Carter's administration were being allowed to undermine the Justice Department's efforts on behalf of the new Republican president, Ronald Reagan.
Smith's 27-year-old special assistant, John G. Roberts Jr., was asked to help the attorney general respond.
The conservatives' complaints should get a "substantial and considered refutation," Roberts wrote in a Feb. 16, 1982, memo. But too vigorous a denial might "open us up to criticism from the left and even the center." The attorney general's best approach, Roberts concluded, would be to tell critics to frame their attacks in terms of policy, not personnel: "He can call for healthy and vigorous debate on the merits, but let there be no mistake that Department policy is his policy for which he is fully responsible."
Now a nominee for the Supreme Court, Roberts's past writings and government work are being examined for any signal about his judicial and political philosophy. His memos from his time as a young Justice Department and White House lawyer show he was deeply involved in many of the day's hot-button political issues -- and that his job included not only legal issues but also public relations. Roberts wrote often of how policy might play out in media coverage, how to finesse arguments to interest groups and how to best portray Reagan initiatives not just in court but to the public at large.
"John's role was part of a concerted effort to change the legal orthodoxy," said Bruce Fein, who worked with Roberts at the Justice Department. "We recognized early on that you had to convince the American people that what we wanted was the right thing to do and not just the legal thing to do."
Before joining the Justice Department in August 1981, Roberts had no media or political experience and very little Washington experience outside a year as a law clerk to then-Justice William H. Rehnquist at the Supreme Court. Yet right from the beginning of what would be almost five years as a well-placed staffer in the Reagan administration, he confidently helped calibrate the administration's conservative message.
He ghost-wrote speeches and op-eds for Smith. He pulled together detailed talking points for the attorney general to use in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. And he sat in on an Aug. 3 meeting at which top Justice staffers discussed "a coordinated effort to communicate the Department's civil rights record and dispel the impression created by our critics that the Department has 'turned back the clock' on civil rights enforcement," according to a memo Roberts wrote on Aug. 5.
At the meeting, he noted, "it was considered important to redouble our attempts to place our record before the public prior to the time when the onset of the fall campaign would limit our flexibility."
In the days before Web logs, Roberts was assigned to spread the word by writing an op-ed for Smith to be "mass-mailed" to newspapers across the country, along with a "more elaborate" piece for possible submission to the Wall Street Journal op-ed page.
Foreshadowing a later career in which he would enjoy cordial relations with many liberal colleagues in the Washington legal community, Roberts's specialty was the recasting of sometimes controversial policies in the least provocative language possible.
He "was not strident, not gladiatorial," Fein recalled.
In March 1984, amid a bitter debate over the administration's policy of backing anti-communist governments and guerrillas in Central America, the Justice Department had to prepare testimony on the seemingly arcane workings of the Office of Immigration Litigation. But Roberts, then at the White House, spotted trouble in draft remarks.
There was no need for the draft to talk about the government's denial of visas to Nicaragua's Marxist interior minister, Tomas Borge, and Hortensia Allende, the widow of the Chilean president toppled in a 1973 military coup, Roberts wrote on March 23, because the "denials were, and continue to be, particularly controversial." Roberts added: "Such gratuitous mention could divert attention from the purpose of the hearing."
He then suggested a revision that "makes the point without risking unnecessary controversy."
In July 1985, Roberts noted that there was "a good deal of intuitive appeal" to Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell's recommendation that the administration fight to narrow the scope of civil rights laws affecting universities that receive federal funds. But he acknowledged that "I do not think the administration can revisit the issue at this late date." That "would precipitate a firestorm of criticism, with little if any chance of success."
There were times, though, when Roberts counseled taking political risks in pursuit of what he saw as overriding policy benefits.
The administration had suffered politically in 1982 when Congress passed a more expansive extension of the Voting Rights Act than the Justice Department had favored.
With housing discrimination coming up again in early 1983, Roberts wrote a memo to White House Counsel Fred F. Fielding noting that the "fact that we were burned last year because we did not sail in with new voting rights legislation does not mean we will be hurt this year if we go slowly on housing legislation."
"Government intrusion . . . quite literally hits much closer to home in this area than in any other civil rights area," Roberts added. The administration should be prepared for the debate, "but I do not think there is a need to concede all or many of the controversial points . . . to preclude political damage."
"I never knew [Roberts] to be other than circumspect," said Terry Eastland, who worked for Smith and his successor, Edwin Meese III, between 1983 and 1988. "He was never the sort to radiate political conviction the way some others might. That's just the way he was. . . . But he wouldn't be there if he wasn't sympathetic to the views of the administration."