Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Behind the Rehnquist Rumor

You can tell I lived in Washington D.C. and worked in politics for awhile: in typical Washington-politics fashion, what fascinates is not the story itself, but the story-behind-the-story: the "process" story, or the "what does it mean" story.

(It's really funny: most newspapers in the U.S. write the lead, "President Bush named Judge John Roberts to the Supreme Court..."; in D.C., it's more something like, "Conservatives and moderates struggled until the last minute to tip the President's choice to the Supreme Court, but in the end the choice was a surprise--or, maybe not such a surprise . . . " And the actual facts you care about will come in maybe paragraph 3 or so!)

Well, here's another story-behind-the-story...

How did Robert Novak get the Rehnquist story so wrong?

It's easy to dismiss the media; but Novak doesn't stick his neck out for an anonymous source. No reason to. Yet Novak reported not only that Rehnquist would leave, but that he'd announce by such-and-such a time and day. And it never happened.

Novak doesn't commit himself to something THAT specific without a really good source, because he can't afford to have it blow up in his face (as it did). No "inside politics" reporter is sanguine about that.

Was Novak's source wrong? Again, Novak himself thinks of that; that's why it had to be someone really good -- i.e., if not Rehnquist himself (the best source, of course), then someone really, really, close to him. And that person doesn't "get it wrong."

Remember, political reporters, especially longtime ones, know a lot of these rumors and anonymous tips can be about inner political and power struggles: feed a phony rumor to that guy, let him get burned when he gives it to the media, then his stock goes down with the congressman, and the media. I don't think Novak gets duped...

By anyone but the Chief himself. That's who I think it came from.

Now, why might the Chief dangle the story of his stepping down, then not do it?

Well, he might just have changed his mind; it's possible.

Or, perhaps he was interested to see what clues surfaced about the White House's pick for his replacement.

If true, the anonymous tip was no more than a ruse to surface that information, so the Chief could try to discern the White House's thinking -- would they go for a "ticket," a conservative and a moderate? Maybe resignation was never a real option; or maybe he pulled back when he saw, or heard, something he didn't like.

If all this is true, it seems to me he now has more information -- and far better. He has Bush's actual, first nominee. He knows Bush didn't pick a woman or a Hispanic, when there was pressure on him to do so. He might infer that means Bush won't play the diversity game; or that he will -- with the next pick.

If this is right, it leads to one intriguing possibility: Rehnquist may yet step down.

I can guess wildly at what he might see that would induce that, but it would be totally blind: does he step down because he likes the cut of Roberts' jib? Does he step down because he infers who Bush's choice for chief justice would be? Who knows?

But if Rehnquist WAS Novak's source of the resignation story, it suggests to me he may have done it to learn something. Perhaps about Bush; perhaps about how the confirmation process might go. If this is true, he may step down if he's learned what he wanted to, and liked what he learned.

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