Asked to trace the intellectual development of Supreme Court nominee John Roberts, his college roommate, Bob Bush, suggests starting early.
"If you are looking for influences, the vast majority of them clearly were in play before he got to college," said Bush, who roomed with Roberts for three years at Harvard University.
With a love of tradition honed at a boys prep school and a deep Catholicism instilled by his parents, John Glover Roberts Jr. arrived in Cambridge in the fall of 1973 uncannily self-assured even for a Harvard freshman, his interests, tastes and worldview already formed.
Although he found himself in a much more liberal environment than the steel-making swath of Indiana where he had been raised, the seven years Roberts would spend at Harvard as an undergraduate and a law student ended up reinforcing his conservative views rather than undermining them. Friends say he seemed to feel singularly comfortable sitting outside the campus's political mainstream, engaging in the sport of political debate but rarely altering his views.
As a senior, he explored the thought of Daniel Webster, a prominent 19th-century conservative out of step with his time. As a second-year law student, he startled his tax class by wondering aloud whether the government should switch to a flat tax.
"There is no doubt he was more conservative than the professors and most of the students," said Donald Scherer, a friend who ate lunch with Roberts most days as first-year law students. "I'm not aware of any epiphany. He just seemed pretty consistent."
An examination of the formative years of the federal appeals court judge nominated by President Bush to succeed Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on the nation's highest court provides an important context for two fundamental questions the Senate Judiciary Committee will consider when it is scheduled to begin confirmation hearings on Tuesday:
Do Roberts's recently released writings from years as a legal adviser to two Republican presidents -- containing strong stances on such volatile issues as abortion, affirmative action, gender equity, and the role of religion in public life -- reflect his own views or only those of the officials who hired him? And is Roberts flexible enough in his thinking to decide the issues that come before the court in an open-minded way?
A Father's Influence
In a memoir about her coming of age called "Portable Prairie: Confessions of an Unsettled Midwesterner," M.J. Andersen, an editorial writer at the Providence Journal, describes how her former boyfriend, a law student named Grover, could be explained in part by his father. The father was, she wrote, a man who "had risen from modest origins . . . and now was in charge of things, the guy who got relocated to solve steel-company problems. It was not hard to see, in Grover, the drive that has been passed on."
Andersen, who dated Roberts while he was in law school and a Supreme Court clerk, will not discuss their relationship. But her book, in which she identifies Roberts by close approximation of his middle name, Glover, presents a vivid picture of a father who by many accounts had a strong influence on his son, including his choice of careers. "Real men study law," the strong-minded father told Roberts when he was considering graduate school in history, one friend recalled.
Jack Roberts grew up in Pennsylvania coal country in a family of Republican churchgoers, according to a cousin, George DiBacco. In 1964, he was dispatched by Bethlehem Steel to join a small group of executives selected to build an enormous new mill on an expanse of empty sand on Lake Michigan's shore. Along with his wife, Rosemary, he moved his family to a pretty community along the lake.
Although it is part of Michigan City, a small industrial town, Long Beach "was kind of an ingrown community . . . always more conservative, kind of the lace-curtain Irish," said Bernie Lootens, who taught history at the city's public high schools for three decades. When Roberts's parents bought their split-level house there in 1966, the property still was covered by a legal covenant specifying that residents had to be "Caucasian Gentiles," according to a longtime realtor, a local title company and county records.
The steel executive had exacting standards, several former colleagues said, but according to James Johnson, one of the 11 first black workers hired at the plant, he treated employees fairly and "did not give a hoot" about their race.
But neither the plant nor Jack Roberts was isolated from the racial tensions of the time. In 1974, the year after his son left for college, Bethlehem and eight other steel companies were ordered by the government to correct race and sex bias in their hiring and promotion practices and to provide $30.9 million in backpay to women and minorites as compensation for past discrimination. Jack Roberts's duties eventually included overseeing an unusual storefront training program in Michigan City for women and blacks to help the company meet its court-ordered hiring targets.
In 1977, a year after Jack Roberts became assistant general manager of Bethlehem Steel's Burns Harbor, Ind., plant, it was hit by additional allegations of discrimination. A group of female employees filed a class action lawsuit and a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission seeking to overturn the plant's policy of requiring women suspected of pregnancy to undergo tests, and then to take a leave without benefits if the tests were positive, according to a local newspaper, the Post-Tribune.
Jack Roberts's views on the two cases could not be ascertained. But as a Reagan administration official from 1981 to 1986, John Roberts was a persistent critic of the EEOC and affirmative action.
Andersen writes that Jack Roberts imparted in John Jr. what she describes as "sky-high standards of attainment" that he did not share with his three daughters. He also made sure that his only son had the best high school education available -- La Lumiere School in La Porte, Ind., a rigorous boarding school founded in the early 1960s by a group of Catholic businessmen for their sons.
At La Lumiere, the boys studied hard, played sports and were secluded from the political strains of the era. James L. Coppens, who gave Roberts individualized instruction in advanced-placement Latin and was an impassioned liberal, said he did not discuss contemporary events with his star pupil, focusing instead on the difference between the Greek and Roman heroic ideal.
The only activism at La Lumiere the years Roberts was there, Coppens said, was a spontaneous general strike in May 1970 -- Roberts's freshman year -- the day after four students were killed by National Guard troops at Kent State University. About half the faculty observed the strike, Coppens said, but none of the students took part.
"Overall, our students were more conservative than liberal," said Chris Balawender, who was Roberts's football coach and taught him U.S. and European history, his favorite subject. "Many of our students came from affluent backgrounds. Most of their parents were probably Republican."
Roberts fit in. During his junior year of high school, he criticized the prospect of coeducation in the student newspaper, foreshadowing by many years his criticism as a federal lawyer of intervention in gender discrimination cases.
"The argument that girls will provide a new viewpoint in the classroom is probably valid, although I certainly can't imagine what points will be viewed," he wrote in the newspaper, the Torch. He said he would not want "the football team waiting on the sidelines for practice while the girls finish their field hockey or whatever. Game times should be interesting, too. Imagine the five cheerleaders on the sidelines, with block 'L's' on their chests, screaming 'Give me a 'L.' Give me a break!"
A Separate World
As it happened, La Lumiere enrolled its first three black students in Roberts's sophomore year. Two of them were Paris and Neil Barclay, gifted brothers recruited by the school's priest from a lower working-class neighborhood near Chicago.
Their presence, however, did not foster much political awareness. As an eighth-grader at a Catholic grade school, Paris Barclay said, he got into trouble for wearing a black armband. But after arriving at La Lumiere, he said, "I was really focusing on achieving and keeping my head down. . . . I didn't want to seem separate and apart. I was struggling to compete with these Lacoste [shirts and] blue blazers, and I was there with my Penney's stuff, trying to fit in."
If Roberts had gone to Michigan City's public high school, he would have been exposed directly to racial tensions bruising the community. During his teenage years, black students at Elston High staged walkouts to protest racism, Lootens said. One day, several hundred working-class white students walked out, too, complaining that troublemakers had gained the upper hand. Jesse L. Jackson came from Chicago, 60 miles away, to give a speech.
The tensions peaked the summer before Roberts's sophomore year of high school. On a Saturday night in July 1970, a race riot in Michigan City resulted in the governor calling in the National Guard.
It started, recalls Walter Gipsen, a popular black man in his twenties at the time, after he was arrested with two friends outside Sammie's Tavern on a disorderly conduct charge by local police, who gave him a hard time "because of my dating white girls."
As word of the arrests quickly spread, friends -- fed up with a climate in which certain jobs, restaurants and neighborhoods in the city were off-limits to blacks -- rushed to the tavern, according to Gipsen, local news accounts and others who were there. People began to loot and throw firebombs, and they torched a lumberyard. The governor summoned the Guard, the mayor imposed a curfew, and it was Tuesday before the city calmed.
The violence near downtown Michigan City took place less than 10 minutes from the Roberts home and a world apart. "I would assume, unless his parents were really activists or particularly progressive, [the riot] was just looked upon as an unfortunate thing that was happening -- and if those people would only stay in their place and not act crazy," said the head of Indiana's civil rights commission at the time, C. Lee Crean, who is white and was dispatched by then-Gov. Edgar D. Whitcomb to try to quell the unrest.
Nor did it touch Roberts's school. La Lumiere was so isolated, Barclay said, that he never heard of the riot that shook Michigan City less than two months before he arrived.
Unorthodox on Campus
The freshman roommate Bush remembers from Harvard's Straus Hall was witty, formal and surprisingly certain of what he wanted to study: Renaissance intellectual history. "There was no experimentation," Bush said.
Roberts and Bush arrived in Cambridge in 1973, four years after a campuswide strike in which students had taken over University Hall for days to protest military recruiting on campus. "Everyone was pre-something -- pre-law, pre-med; it was perceived to be pretty cutthroat," said Bush, who recalls several suicides in their pressure-ridden class.
Still, Cambridge remained a place of leftist causes. Peter J. Ferrara, a self-described libertarian Republican who went to Harvard and its law school the same time as Roberts, recalls joining the undergraduate newspaper and seeing a large poster of Karl Marx on the wall behind the desk of the student editor to whom he delivered provocative, conservative articles.
Roberts was quieter about his beliefs, but friends knew that he held what were, in that climate, unorthodox views. Bush, who favored equal pay for women, recalls that Roberts "was not the most liberal person when it came to women's issues." Bush said his roommate "hated" the 1972 Helen Reddy song, "I am Woman," a feminist anthem. "I remember having the impression it wasn't really her voice" that Roberts objected to, Bush said.
Roberts attended Catholic Mass regularly, a practice he continued through law school. "He didn't make a big deal of it," Scherer, his law school friend, said, "but there were times when a group of us were doing something, and he'd say, 'No, I am busy.' I'd later find out he had gone to church."
Roberts's ideological frame of reference in those days is evident in his paper that won the Bowdoin Prize, an essay competition, his senior year: "The Utopian Conservative -- A Study of Continuity and Change in the Thought of Daniel Webster." It portrays Webster as a leader, motivated by the interests of business, who was out of step with the prevailing conflicts of his day.
Sydney Nathans, a Duke University history professor whose own book on Webster is cited as a reference in Roberts's work, said the paper "signifies that, very early on, he was interested in the history of other conservatives like himself and was trying to get perspective on how a conservative operates in society. . . . [It] explore[s] the way in which other people who had core values found ways to express them in politics and law."
Out of sync as he was with Harvard's politics, Roberts liked its intellectual rigor and Eastern formalism, his friends recall. Roberts interviewed at Stanford Law School and returned disenchanted. His interviewer had worn sandals and no tie, Bush said. "It sort of upset his view of proper decorum."
The Quiet Dissenter
Harvard Law School, according to Charles Ogletree, who was two years ahead of Roberts and would eventually become one of its few black professors, was a place where students would jog along the river or enjoy a slice of pizza in the afternoon "and find themselves in intense debates about whether persons who had choked on a fish bone at a seafood restaurant had a right to sue the owner or whether their own negligence in not spotting the bone prevented them from succeeding in a law suit."
At a time when across the Charles River, Boston was angrily divided by race over a federal school busing order, Ogletree wrote in his memoir, "All Deliberate Speed," "Our classrooms were soundproof."
But while it wasn't the '60s, activism lingered. Students protested that only three of the approximately 70 law faculty members were female and three were black. The night in 1977 that then-Chief Justice Warren E. Burger had been scheduled to appear at the annual moot court competition, more than 100 people demonstrated in the rain against what they regarded as the Supreme Court's "repressive" civil rights policies. Other liberal activists at the school demonstrated against the Supreme Court's 1978 decision in the Allan Bakke case, in which the court sided with a white University of California medical school applicant who had sued over what he considered "reverse discrimination" favoring minorities in the university's admissions process.
Roberts dissented, friends knew, from such liberal orthodoxy. "John believed in merit. I don't think he believed in special preferences for folks," Scherer said. Roberts also preferred small government and, in class, challenged Fourth Amendment search and seizure rules, as well as raised the notion of a flat tax to replace the country's progressive tax system, Scherer added.
"There were a handful of people in law school who one knew were conservative and identified themselves as Republicans," and Roberts was one, according to Richard Lazarus, a law classmate who would later room with him in Washington.
But he was not particularly vocal in his beliefs. Harvard Law Professor Laurence H. Tribe, who gave Roberts a grade of A- in a course on constitutional law, recalls his student as "very quiet in class. . . . It was a period in which conservatives, self-identified or self-conscious, would have been inclined not to be very vocal at the school."
Conservatism, in fact, was just beginning to stir there. Some students founded a journal dedicated to countering what they regarded as judicial activism, but Roberts did not write for it. He "just didn't have time for us," said Vernon R. Proctor, one of its founders.
Instead, Roberts threw himself with vigor into the prestigious Harvard Law Review, which consumed as much as 50 hours a week his last two years.
Said David Leebron, the law review president in 1979 and now president of Rice University in Houston: "Our year wasn't a highly political year."
The Republican Apprentice
By 1980, when Roberts moved to Washington to become a clerk for Justice William H. Rehnquist, his views began to flower more openly. That fall, as Ronald Reagan campaigned successfully for president, Roberts placed an elephant -- the symbol of the GOP -- atop the television in the townhouse he shared with Lazarus. After the election, Lazarus recalled, "John mostly defended Reagan administration policies."
His clerkship with Rehnquist steeped him in legal thought of the right. That year, Rehnquist wrote majority opinions that upheld a requirement for draft registration by men alone and upholding a California court's decision that only males could be held liable for statutory rape, while he wrote dissents that supported searches of automobiles and homes without a warrant and opposed a lawsuit by female prison guards for equal pay.
By the summer of 1981, Roberts had moved on to become a special assistant to Reagan's attorney general. Two months into the job, he wrote a note to his immediate supervisor, Kenneth W. Starr, recommending that he hire Dean Colson, a fellow clerk for Rehnquist, and Stephen Galebach, one of the small nucleus of conservative classmates from Harvard Law. Roberts's descriptions of them could easily have been of himself.
Colson, Roberts told Starr, "combines intellectual power with a pleasant political style, making him well-suited for dealing with entrenched bureaucrats of opposing views." As for Galebach, he wrote, his classmate was "an articulate spokesman for strongly conservative views, which he was not afraid to express openly despite the hostility of 90 percent of his audience."
Research editor Lucy Shackelford and special correspondent Lauren Schuker in Cambridge, Mass., contributed to this article.