WASHINGTON -- Stephen G. Breyer would have been on the Supreme Court a year earlier, his friends believe, if he had met President Clinton at the top of the judge's form as a charmer and a truly funny man.
Instead, when the two men had lunch at the White House late last spring, Judge Breyer was well below par, suffering from a broken rib and a punctured lung, and weary from a 10-hour train trip after leaving a hospital bed. He could not fly because of the lung injury, suffered in a bicycle mishap.
Had Mr. Clinton met the regular guy Steve, who has legions of friends who are lavish both in their loyalty and in their admiration, the "chemistry," they insist, almost surely would have been different.
That unfortunate encounter, White House aides have said, was the real reason Mr. Breyer was not chosen. At the time, however, the White House said that he was passed over because he had not paid taxes for a maid who worked for him and his wife.
Here, his friends say, is what Mr. Breyer is made of, as a real person: a somewhat raffish fellow who "wins through his charm, not through his appearance," a man "more interested in people than in things," a delightfully humorous man who is absolutely "beloved" by his colleagues on the Boston bench, and a "highly, highly intelligent" scholar and judge.
One of Washington's most political politicians, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., is known to be "enormously fond" of him, associates say. Kenneth Feinberg, a Washington lawyer who worked with Mr. Breyer when they were Senate staff aides and remains a close friend, says that aside from being a great intellect, Judge Breyer is "a politician in the best sense of the word."
"He can listen to conflicting, provocative arguments and develop a consensus," Mr. Feinberg said. "That's what makes him unique."
Proof of Mr. Breyer's consensus-building skills, Mr. Feinberg said, is the fact that "the number of cases he's written in the last 14 years on the federal bench where he dissented you can count on one hand."
The lawyer also points to the fact that, as chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mr. Breyer earned the respect and admiration of those on both sides of the aisle.
Mr. Feinberg says there may be a little of the rumpled professor about the judge, but added: "He is absent-minded like a fox. Never underestimate Judge Breyer. He's always listening, thinking, tuned in."
The judge, he adds, is "down to earth, wholesome, as far from an intellectual snob as you can get." Mr. Breyer is a keen Red Sox fan and avid runner.
Kathleen Sullivan, a Stanford law professor who formerly taught at Harvard as a colleague of Judge Breyer, says he rides a "clunky one-speed bicycle from Cambridge to downtown Boston." In political views, she says, Judge Breyer is a twin of Mr. Clinton's -- that is, a moderate or "new" Democrat.
She describes him as a cross between a Californian and an Oxford don -- relaxed and, yet, sometimes austerely formal. She predicts that "he is going to be the intellectual heavyweight of the center of the court."
Although Mr. Breyer was chosen for the federal appeals court seat by President Jimmy Carter, the Senate did not act on that nomination until after Ronald Reagan had become president, and the Republicans were more than content to let his nomination go forward.
Other close friends contend that it does no justice to the Steve Breyer they know to suggest that he emerged as the court nominee this time only because he was the "safest" of the three finalists Mr. Clinton was considering.
It is true, Mr. Breyer did have a strong partisan on his side in the White House inner circle, counsel Lloyd N. Cutler, who has known the judge for years. But his character and achievements have produced many cheerleaders for him.
Mr. Breyer, 55, is a native of San Francisco, who studied philosophy at Stanford, went to Harvard Law School, and then to Oxford as a Marshall Scholar. He was a law clerk for the late Justice Arthur L. Goldberg, taught administrative law at Harvard, was a Watergate scandal prosecutor, served on the Senate Judiciary Committee as an aide and later as chief counsel, and then went to the federal appeals court in Boston in 1981. He is now its chief judge.
Judge Breyer and his wife -- Joanna, a psychologist -- cited a 1992 net worth of between $3.2 million and $6.55 million in financial disclosure forms last year.