Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Rehnquist Choice: The Untold Story of the Nixon Appointment That Redefined the Supreme CourtThe Rehnquist Choice: The Untold Story of the Nixon Appointment That Redefined the Supreme Court by John W. Dean
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"There ought to be a woman judge. Lots of women, and it's economic. I'm not for women, frankly, in any job. I don't want any of them around."
(R.M. Nixon, according to transcript of recorded conversations)

John W. Dean was one of the crucial figures in the Watergate affair of the early 1970s, the affair that ended R.M. Nixon's presidency. Of all the principal actors in the affair he might be the one who contributed the most to exposing the President's knowledge of all machinations. The Rehnquist Choice (2001) is not a book about Watergate, though. Mr. Dean writes here about President Nixon's other contribution to political history of the U.S. - one that that might have had even a more significant impact - the nomination of William Rehnquist to the Supreme Court in 1971. As Mr. Nixon said himself in a TV speech to the nation:
"Presidents come and go, but the Supreme Court - through its decisions - goes on forever."
Mr. Rehnquist eventually became the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the author aptly summarizes the importance of President Nixon's decision:
"The Rehnquist choice [...] has redefined the Supreme Court, making it a politically conservative bastion within our governmental system. Rehnquist's many years of service, and his ability as a legal scholar, have brought about the rewriting of fundamental aspects of the nation's constitutional law."
The book contains extensive excerpts from the transcripts of the infamous "Nixon tapes" that eventually sealed the President's fate and forced his resignation in 1974 - recordings of conversations taped in the Oval Office.

The title of the book is a little misleading since more than half of the book recounts the history of all Nixon's nominations to the Supreme Court. Out of eight seriously considered candidates two were rejected by the Senate, two were deemed unqualified by the American Bar Association, one withdrew himself, and three nominations were successful: justices Blackmun, Powell, and Rehnquist.

The book is rich is historical details and I will focus only on its two main emphases. The author's first central point is that it was in fact he, John W. Dean, who sold the idea that Mr. Rehnquist should become nominated to Supreme Court to people who had significant influence on the President and the selection of nominees. One has to keep in mind that Mr. Dean's narrative may conceivably be biased. I have no way of assessing the veracity of the message: it might be true but neither is it impossible that Mr. Dean aggrandizes his role in history.

The other central idea is that Mr. Rehnquist did not tell the entire truth about his past judicial record during the confirmation hearings and that the truth did not come out because the entire process was conducted in haste. The author's argument is very strong but I am certainly not an expert to take sides. If the message is indeed true, it would make me less happy about the robustness of the confirmation process.

One aspect I do not like is that the distinction between transcripts of Nixon tapes and Mr. Dean's recollections of conversations that had not been taped is not made more explicit. The reader, knowing that most of the dialogues in the book come from tapes, may form an impression that Dean's private conversations are rendered verbatim. But, in fact, the author could have made them all up. I am absolutely not claiming that he did any such thing, I just regret that the distinction is not more clear.

The look behind the curtains of the nomination process, evidenced by conversations caught on tape, is quite revealing. One can really confirm the ugliness of the political process, things like catering to minorities: focusing on whether the candidate is Catholic or Protestant, African American, Italian, Jewish or Polish, and, of course, trying to nominate a woman. Let me quote another passage from President Nixon's rant:
"And she's the best qualified woman but she's not qualified for the Supreme Court. Jesus, that's great. That's great."
We may never know if other presidents tape their private conversations in the White House. If they do, I have no doubts that Mr. Nixon wouldn't be the only one with despicable quotes.

And finally, let me observe how extremely non-partisan the senators were in these times - often voting against the party line on both sides of the party divide. Nothing even remotely similar would be possible in today's polarized political climate.

Three and a half stars.

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