How a quartet of power brokers known as the Four Horsemen is shaping the future of the high court
The calls start just after 8 every morning, and the participants phone in from just about anywhere. A lawyer speed dials the teleconference line from a taxi as he dashes to a breakfast meeting. A radio evangelist checks in before heading to Atlanta. An old Reagan hand punches in the password from a hotel room while a federalist movement leader calls from his office near the White House.
The daily conference call, in many ways, is indistinguishable from thousands of others occurring inside Washington's beltway, but with one big difference: This one is shaping the Republicans' nomination strategy for the Supreme Court and, in consultation with the White House, scripting party-line talking points. The daily call is also the glue for a fragile conservative coalition, from the religious right to the business lobby, that's smoothing the way for President Bush's nominee to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
The men, who have been dialing in since 2003, have come to be known as the "Four Horsemen": C. Boyden Gray, Edwin Meese III, Jay Sekulow, and Leonard Leo. Hand-picked by the White House for their ties to disparate conservative groups, they have been instrumental in helping the president name strict constitutionalists to the federal bench--and now they hope to do the same on the nation's highest court. "We've been waiting for this for four years," says Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice. And so the Four Horsemen are galloping into this confirmation fight.
High profile. The stakes are plenty high, but they could go higher still. Despite Chief Justice William Rehnquist's announcement last week that he intends to stay on as long as his health permits, there's continued speculation that Bush may soon be faced with the prospect of a second Supreme Court vacancy. That has raised the profile of the Four Horsemen, but it has stirred unease about their role as well and made their mission more difficult. Keeping the lid on party discord has strained the coalition. Two weeks ago, the four had to quiet dissension among evangelical conservatives upset over the prospect that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales might be the Supreme Court nominee. They were determined to avoid a repeat of that situation. So after their morning call early last week, an order went out: Cool it with the anti-Gonzales rhetoric. Period.
Since a message from the coalition is tantamount to word from the West Wing--a White House aide participates in the daily conference call, and the administration's press office suggests the tone and tenor of messages the group dispatches--the order from the Four Horsemen echoed through the news media. The result: a sudden absence of Gonzales bashing in the press, with GOP insiders saying he appeared to be out of the running for the high-court seat.
The reach of the quartet extends far beyond the beltway. There's Sekulow, a lawyer, radio-show host, and leader of the evangelical right whose organization was founded by Pat Robertson; Meese, one of Ronald Reagan's attorneys general, has strong business ties and is now at the conservative Heritage Foundation; Leonard Leo runs the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, a conservative lawyers' group, and serves as a strategist for the White House on Catholic issues; and Gray, an eminence grise who was counsel to President George H. W. Bush, is a partner in a prominent Washington law firm and on track to become ambassador to the European Union in Brussels.
Liberal leaders like Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights acknowledge the influence of the four Republicans but suggest that real power exists elsewhere--especially with evangelicals like James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family. Religious conservatives say the coalition has succeeded in focusing conservatives on the judiciary but warn about what might happen if there's a moderate Supreme Court nominee. "Our coalition would split," predicts Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation. The Four Horsemen would get back on the phones to keep that from happening. And given their access to the White House, it would be hard to bet against them.
This story appears in the July 25, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.