William Rehnquist's Passion for Gambling

The former Supreme Court justice was all smiles when it came to poker.


By Paul Bedard, Washington Whispers

It was four years ago that former Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the court's leading conservative, died of cancer at the age of 80. His obituaries focused on his efforts at achieving unity on court decisions and his role in the 1999 Clinton impeachment trial and 2000 Bush v. Gore election decision. But little was written about the man in the robe. And he probably would have liked that, being an extremely private man. Now comes a bid to change his image as a stodgy old codger from one of his secret friends, former Northern Virginia community newspaper editor Herman Obermayer. "He was a regular kind of guy, really fun to be around," says the author of Rehnquist: A Personal Portrait of the Distinguished Chief Justice of the United States.

The two met in 1986 playing in a tennis match. Because they were nearly the same age and enjoyed similar tastes in politics, movies, sports, literature, even sending postcards—and didn't talk law or court biz—they became BFFs. In an interview, Obermayer describes his pal as "old school," a son of the Great Depression. Still, his penny-pinching was extreme. Just consider his getaway home in Vermont. There was no TV—no coffeepot, microwave, or toaster. When there, he picked his mail up because he didn't want to rent a post office box. At restaurants—never pricey—he'd leave 10 percent on the tab after subtracting the tax. "No business should get extra compensation for helping the government collect taxes," Obermayer quoted.

Rehnquist was also obsessive about being on time. He'd scowl if Obermayer and his wife were two minutes late for a movie date. He was also hooked on cigarettes, making up excuses to leave dinner parties if the hosts frowned on smoking. And he had little use for fancy cars, driving his Subaru Forester on weekends. When Obermayer splurged on a BMW, Rehnquist sneered, "Still looks like a Chevy to me."

But ask him to bet, play poker, or talk books and poetry, and Rehnquist was all smiles. His passion was betting. Usually $1 bets, but on serious issues like the 2000 presidential race. On Supreme Court stationery, he faxed bets back and forth to Obermayer, eventually picking Bush in an Electoral College blowout. When it didn't happen and the Florida recount headed to his court for a final decision, he typed another note: "I therefore feel obliged to cancel all my election bets in any way dependent on the Florida vote."

At Rehnquist's death, news stories showed Obermayer "how little the world knew about my friend. They made me aware of how fortunate I had been."

Illustration by Ed Wexler for USN&WR

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