Practical Jokes, Formalities Marked Historic Nomination

Posted July 20, 2005 at 6:42pm

So what if the Australian prime minister found out before the Senate’s leaders did? They eventually got word that Judge John Roberts was President Bush’s pick before the rest of the nation did — if just by a few minutes.

Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who had been to the White House on Monday for one last consultation, was busy trying to finish up his Senatorial business for the night so he could head to dinner at Charlie Palmer Steak with his wife, Joan. Wrapping up the third and final vote of a series that began around 7 p.m. Tuesday, Specter got a tap on the shoulder that told him White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card was on line 5 in the Republican Cloakroom.

When Specter announced himself, a voice very much not Card’s pulled a practical joke. “I thought this was Joan Specter,” the caller said.

“No, this is Arlen Specter,” the chairman said, before he caught on to the prankster.

“Then I recognized it was the president’s voice,” Specter recalled Wednesday.

Bush quickly informed him that Roberts was the pick, and Specter said he thanked him for the “advance notice.”

He informed reporters Wednesday that the Cloakroom call came roughly 15 minutes before White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan and Communications Director Dan Bartlett kicked off their briefing for reporters at 8 p.m. that unveiled the nominee.

Roberts’ nomination to succeed retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was one of the best-kept secrets in Washington — so much so that Specter and only three other Senators were given advance notice of the choice: Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), ranking member on Judiciary.

One veteran GOP Senator, walking off the floor Tuesday evening unaware of the pick, openly joked with reporters that the White House must have been out to prove that it could do something without a leak — a not-so-subtle reference to the ongoing investigation of the administration’s handling of the public outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame.

The final decision on Roberts came about seven hours before the call to Specter, when Bush stepped out of a lunch with Australian Prime Minister John Howard and his wife around 12:30 p.m. Tuesday to offer the job to the judge.

The first people to learn the news were Howard and his wife as well as first lady Laura Bush, upon the president’s return to their lunch.

“I just offered the job to a great, smart 50-year-old lawyer who has agreed to serve on the bench,” Bush told his guests.

That concluded a whirlwind final few days of consideration to a process that started out slowly but thoroughly upon O’Connor’s July 1 retirement and ended in a flurry of mass speculation by the media and conservative activists.

On his trip to the G-8 summit in Scotland, which was held shortly after O’Connor’s departure, Bush had a list of 11 potential nominees that McClellan described as “fluid” — meaning that names joined and left the list during the process.

Bush met personally with five potential nominees on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. He met with Roberts on Friday for an hour in the sitting area of the White House residence. Bush essentially made his decision Monday night but finalized it Tuesday morning.

Roberts has been teaching a class in London and has had to fly back and forth for the interviews, canceling his class Friday to make it to the meeting with Bush.

A veteran appellate lawyer in Washington, Roberts boasted a 25-14 record in arguing cases before the Supreme Court, something the president took notice of, according to Bartlett. “His credentials just jumped off the page.”

By the time the White House finished seeking input from the Senate, three-quarters of the 44 Democrats had spoken to Bush or one of his deputies — more than 70 Senators in all.

When it came to breaking the news, though, most Senators were left in the cold; several were informed by reporters who’d received the information via BlackBerrys and cell phones as the chamber voted.

Even the conservative group most closely wired to the White House, Progress for America, had been proceeding under the premise that another appellate court judge, Edith Brown Clement, would get the nod, as speculation surrounding her grew throughout the day.

The group bought up a couple dozen possible Web site names to serve as its base of operations in the confirmation battle, but by 8:15 p.m. the site, www.judgeroberts.com, only said one thing: judgeclement.com.

Bush first called Frist to inform him of the news at 7:31 p.m., according to an aide. Like the other calls Tuesday night, Frist took it in Cloakroom.

Even with the late-breaking news, Specter made it to dinner with his wife. But he then headed back down to the White House for another meeting with Roberts and administration officials.

He said he got to bed shortly before midnight, as he strolled in the Senate doors at 8:55 a.m. Wednesday ready for a press conference to kick-start his defense of the nomination.