A Portrait of the Justice As a Tightwad Buddy

Rehnquist Shown Up Close and Personal

Posted October 19, 2009 at 3:53pm

In his book “Rehnquist: A Personal Portrait of the Distinguished Chief Justice of the United States,— Herman J. Obermayer paints an endearing picture showing how two parallel lives, inside their friendship, discover a bond that not many knew about.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist was widely recognized for overseeing two historic events: the notorious stories of presidential improprieties during the impeachment trial of former President Bill Clinton and the presidential election of George W. Bush.

But just beneath the public stoic persona of Rehnquist was, according to Obermayer, a lover of people, an empathetic soul and a loyal friend.

The book begins a tale of how Obermayer and Rehnquist, born just 12 days apart, met during their twilight years — a season when their convictions, philosophies and pet peeves were impervious to change.

The convergence of these two lives was an occurrence of fate and of destiny. Both grew up in well-off neighborhoods, they shared congruent military careers, almost all of their children graduated from the same high school and they both shared strong affinities for similar literary works.

Although they were in their early 60s when they first met, both were avid tennis players who met through a mutual friend’s invitation to a game of doubles tennis.

They didn’t rush into the friendship, and they believed that a good friendship keeps some things secret. “Bill and I understood that candor and honesty are quite different from the granting of mutual access to all of life’s secrets. A respect for boundaries and limits is fundamental for most lasting human relationships,— Obermayer writes.

Despite the friendship. Obermayer tries to be honest in describing Rehnquist’s many quirks. Obermayer points out several, including examples of Rehnquist’s frugality, something that Rehnquist saw as a testament of discipline and personal restraint. Rehnquist’s miserly ways were displayed in his tipping style — calculating gratuity before tax because, as Obermayer writes, Rehnquist believed, “No business should get extra compensation for helping the government collect tax.—

Other examples were found in his choice of restaurants. Rehnquist rarely frequented D.C. restaurants because their taxes were two and a half times that of Arlington, Va. Rehnquist also insisted on using tennis balls until “there was almost no discernible fuzz on the balls,— Obermayer writes.

Contrary to his penny-pinching ways, Rehnquist splurged on cigarettes. “Bill was probably addicted to cigarettes,— Obermayer writes.

In addition, Rehnquist loved to bet and explained his betting to Obermayer this way: “Let’s just say I am an informed bettor.— Rehnquist believed the difference between a bettor and a gambler was that “gamblers put meaningful amounts of money at risk; bettors, on the other hand, found pleasure in wagering small insignificant amounts.—

Some of his frugal attitudes nearly cost him the position of chief justice in 1986. During the Senate Judiciary Committee’s confirmation hearings, Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), along with other Democrats on the committee, charged Rehnquist as being ethnically and racially insensitive. It was discovered that Rehnquist neglected to spend the extra money to expunge the 1928 exclusionary covenant on the deed to his property, barring the sale or lease to “anyone of the Hebrew race.—

In addition, Rehnquist had a quirk related to punctuality. According to Obermayer, Rehnquist was always punctual and expected the same in return from those in his sphere, without exception. “If I agreed to pick him up at 4:10 p.m. to go to a movie, and I arrived at 4:12 p.m., he would be pacing up and down the sidewalk or sitting on the stoop and scowling,— Obermayer writes.

But through all the flaws and idiosyncrasies of a man behind the supreme gavel of the United States, Obermayer discovered in Rehnquist an abiding friendship, something that is widely sought after but rarely found.