Bush gets chance he has waited for

President eager to install a justice who shares his ideals, ensures his legacy

The Retirement Of Sandra Day O'connor

July 02, 2005|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The news President Bush had been anticipating since he took office more than four years ago came during lunch, shrouded in secrecy.

The Supreme Court had a sealed envelope to deliver to the White House, Bush was told over lunch with Vice President Dick Cheney in the president's private dining room Thursday. No word on whom it was from.

But there was little mystery about what it would say.

Bush knew then that he was about to get his long-awaited chance to make a Supreme Court nomination - the first in more than a decade - and to put his stamp on the judiciary, cementing a central element of his legacy.

He wouldn't learn until the next morning that he would be replacing Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, rather than her more conservative, ailing 80-year-old colleague, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, whose retirement plans were the stuff of rampant speculation.

Emotional chat

"I wish I was there to hug you," Bush told O'Connor over the phone yesterday from the Oval Office, in what aides called an emotional chat, after he got the official word about 9 a.m. that it was she who planned to step down. "For an old ranch girl, you turned out pretty good."

Bush told O'Connor, who was born in El Paso, Texas, and raised on an Arizona ranch, that she was "one of the great Americans," according to Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, who recounted the roughly five-minute call. "You cannot believe how much Laura and I admire you," Bush said.

Less then 10 minutes later, Bush was huddled with his top advisers, plotting a strategy for choosing O'Connor's replacement - a process that could bitterly divide Republicans and Democrats, carry lasting political consequences for both parties, and ultimately change the ideological bent of the highest court in the land.

Bush won't name his Supreme Court choice until after he returns next Friday from a trip to Europe. He'll study up this weekend at Camp David, and on Air Force One en route to his meetings in Denmark and Scotland, on potential nominees, paging through research compiled by senior aides who have been preparing for years for just such an occasion.

"We have had a plan in place. This is something we prepare for, have been preparing for over the last few years," McClellan said.

Warning of letter

The White House got the call it had been waiting for on Thursday shortly before noon, when Pamela Talkin, the head marshal of the Supreme Court, telephoned Harriet Miers, Bush's counsel, to tell her she had a letter to deliver to the White House.

Miers informed Bush, Cheney and White House chief of staff Andrew H. Card Jr., but the president and his senior staff were left to wonder about its author until just before 9 a.m. yesterday, when Talkin told Miers that the letter "was in reference to Justice O'Connor," McClellan said.

Miers passed the word on to Bush, who gathered Cheney, his political guru Karl Rove and communications director Dan Bartlett in his private dining room to discuss the news.

At 10:18 a.m., Bush was on the phone with O'Connor, and by 10:30, he had summoned the top players in his inner circle - Cheney and the vice president's chief of staff, Lewis I. "Scooter" Libby, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, Miers, Rove, Bartlett and Card - to get down to business.

It's not clear how long Bush will wait to decide on a nominee. Some of his aides are said to be advocating a quick nomination; others are hoping that the president waits until later this summer, leaving potential opponents less time to try to defeat his pick.

Talks with senators

Yesterday Bush was reaching out to senators, including Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, and Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, as well as the senior Judiciary Committee leaders, Chairman Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and top Democrat Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, in preparation for a confirmation process that could be the event of the summer.

For now, Bush has a dossier of information to sift through about a list of potential nominees.

White House officials were staying mum yesterday on which names might be in the folder. But speculation on whom Bush would choose has focused on a list of conservative judges who reflect the president's values and the ideology that guides his decisions. Most are baby boomers - insiders and some analysts say Bush wants a justice who will sit for as long as three decades - and some reflect the racial diversity that Bush has made a hallmark of his administration. A few would be deeply controversial, while others could win fairly easy confirmation.

Much more than a routine head-hunt, Bush faces a consequential decision that will be seen as a strong statement of his priorities.

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