The President's Shrewd Surprise
Washington's self-styled cognoscenti predicted that President Bush would name a woman to the Supreme Court, or a Hispanic, or someone who would throw red meat to his conservative base. Wrong, wrong, and wrong again. Bush loves to confound the capital's insiders, and he did it once more in choosing John G. Roberts. "The beltway still hasn't figured President Bush out," says Ed Gillespie, a White House adviser on the confirmation strategy.
Bush could still pick a woman or a Hispanic if another vacancy occurs, and he considered at least one of each before settling on Roberts, according to Republican strategists. But the president decided that Roberts offered an appealing mix of legal substance and political armor.
In his final interview with Roberts, Bush was particularly impressed with the judge's intellect and humility, which the president expects will shine through at Senate hearings. This, White House aides say, gives Roberts an edge over previous conservative nominees, such as the aloof Clarence Thomas and the imperious Robert Bork. Bush was well aware that if Roberts doesn't appear to be a threatening or polarizing figure, Democrats who go after him will seem petulant or out of the mainstream. To that end, Bush placed a premium on choosing a conservative without an extensive or controversial trail of writings and speeches that can be dissected and attacked by critics. "He is a confirmable conservative," Ken Duberstein, former White House chief of staff for President Ronald Reagan, told U.S. News. "The liberals have a real problem here because to attack somebody with his Establishment credentials makes it look like they will oppose anybody and everybody."
Charmed. Bush, who believes in a personal style of diplomacy in both foreign and domestic affairs, also saw in Roberts a charming advocate who could smooth over differences with Democrats and who might even be persuasive, privately, among the more liberal members of the high court. Bush, who sees a similar affability in himself, thinks Roberts has the potential to spruce up the Republican Party's image and add to Bush's own reputation for making smart personnel picks.
So far, his bet on Roberts is paying off. Only a week ago, a bitter donnybrook was foreseen. It could still come. But more likely is that the president has charted a crafty course that will quickly move a conservative onto the high court without the pitched battle that could hurt his other priorities, such as Social Security overhaul and winning more public and congressional support for the war in Iraq.
This story appears in the August 1, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.