The Rehnquist Choice
By John W. Dean
284 pages, $26
John W. Dean's book "The Rehnquist Choice" is a narrowly focused review of the events that led to the nomination of William Rehnquist for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. But in the process of detailing that tortuous path, Dean gives the reader some interesting insights into the president that he served as White House counsel during the days of the Watergate disaster.
The thrust of Dean's third book about the Nixon years covers only six weeks in fall 1971, when the administration was involved in efforts to identify candidates for two vacancies on the Supreme Court resulting from the almost simultaneous retirements of Justices John Harlan and Hugo Black.
Dean quotes directly and liberally from White House tapes, his own papers and thousands of other documents from the National Archives, thus putting the reader directly in the Oval office. What we learn of Nixon reinforces graphically the findings of Richard Reeves in his just-published volume, "Richard Nixon Alone in the White House."
Americans who might still harbor some positive sentiments about the president who resigned in disgrace will learn here that:
Nixon had utter disdain for women. "I'm not for women, frankly, in any job. I don't want them around. Thank God we don't have any in the Cabinet. But I must say the Cabinet's so lousy we might just as well have a woman there, too." That opinion from the president was expressed despite the fact that he was urging his aides to come up with the names of women whom he could recommend to fill one of the court vacancies. He had reluctantly succumbed to the entreaties of his wife and two daughters to name a woman to the court.
The Nixon team eventually suggested two women it felt would be good material for the court but who, like many others proffered, were never sent up to the Senate committee for various reasons. Nixon obviously was not disappointed by this turn of events. At one point he is quoted as saying, "I don't even think women should be educated." In another conversation he said, "I don't think women should ever be allowed to vote even."
Nixon was obsessed with Jews, despite the fact that Henry Kissinger, one of his closest and most trusted aides, was Jewish. He repeatedly made known that he was opposed to any Jewish candidate for the court, stating that Jews were too soft on crime. As prospects were brought to his attention, one of his first inquiries was to determine if they were Jewish and, if so, they were eliminated from consideration.
Nixon was a foul-mouthed individual. His conversations were always liberally sprinkled with obscenities of all kinds. His gutter language is more apparent in Dean's book than the one that Reeves wrote because Dean more frequently used direct quotes from the president.
The nomination of William Rehnquist, who is now the chief justice and reportedly considering retirement shortly, came only after a host of names were considered. In fact, it was Dean who early in the process suggested Rehnquist, a little-known assistant attorney general at the time. Dean recalls Rehnquist ran a meeting in July 1971 that Nixon attended. At the meeting's end, Nixon asked Dean: "Who the hell is that clown? The guy dressed like a clown." When told his name, Nixon's next question was: "Is he Jewish? He looks it."
Dean, who now very belatedly regrets that he lobbied for the Rehnquist nomination, certainly was not an innocent bystander. He did resign prior to the final days and the indictments of many of Nixon's top aides and became a government witness. He is not a favorite of the Nixon people who survive today. His repeated use of direct quotes tends to temper his bias. The quotes are difficult to challenge.
What is most fascinating and discouraging about "The Rehnquist Choice" is the description of the process involved in selecting candidates for Supreme Court vacancies. The Rehnquist choice resulted after a host of other candidates were proposed, vetted and finally discarded for various reasons. The quality of the candidates was not a primary consideration. The demands of the American Bar Association and the politics of confirmation were dominant in the thinking of Nixon and his people.
Of interest are some of the individuals who were under consideration. They included Vice President Spiro Agnew and senators Arlen Specter and Howard Baker. In the final moments of a Nixon-imposed deadline, Rehnquist was a last-minute substitution who unlike many of the other candidates had not even been vetted when his name was submitted to the Senate.
Murray B. Light is the former editor and vice president of The Buffalo News.