Judging Roberts by views of wife?

August 01, 2005|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - Didn't this all begin when we rediscovered that pillow talk in the White House doesn't always penetrate a president's ear?

In the frenzied days after Sandra Day O'Connor's retirement announcement, first lady Laura Bush openly expressed her desire to see another woman on the highest bench. It was widely assumed that she was speaking for, or at least to, her husband. The media short list was quickly filled with skirts.

Then along came John G. Roberts Jr. all dressed up in a suit and tie and carrying an inscrutable rM-isumM-i. Since no one can figure out what he would do on the bench, especially about Roe vs. Wade, speculation has turned from the details of his paper trail to the fine print of his marriage.

It turns out that Jane Roberts, lawyer, mother of two and one of the first female graduates of Holy Cross College, is also a bona fide board member of an anti-abortion group. Does the fact that Jane belongs to Feminists for Life mean that John is a Nominee against Roe?

FFL is a boutique anti-abortion group dedicated to the proposition that you can be pro-woman and pro-life. Their mission statement says: "Abortion is a reflection that our society has failed to meet the needs of women. Women deserve better than abortion."

But FFL is coy about whether it seeks to criminalize abortion, eerily quiet on contraceptives and silent about whether it trusts women as ethical decision-makers.

We don't know if her work in FFL means Mrs. Roberts wants to overturn Roe. Even if we did, does Jane speak for John? Are wives the canary in the mine of their husband's minds?

There isn't a whole lot of evidence to support the power of pillows over politics. Remember back when Abigail Adams wrote the famous line to husband John: "Remember the ladies. ... Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of husbands." John wrote back, "I cannot but laugh" at the plea for women's rights.

We generally assume that women are to the left, not the right, of their husbands on women's issues. In recent years, Barbara Bush was widely known as being pro-choice. Laura Bush has openly said she's not in favor of overturning Roe. These Republican in-laws were designated to reassure moderate voters that their husbands wouldn't really be dangerous to the right to choose.

It's true that husbands and wives are more likely to agree with each other politically than not. The much vaunted gender gap is not really about spouses canceling each other out at the ballot box. It's actually a marriage gap, with single women far more likely to be progressive than those who are "sleeping with the enemy."

So we are entitled to suspicions about Judge Roberts and Roe. But after reading memos from the 1980s and the details of his biography, we will remain clueless about what he would do on the bench unless he tells us.

Only John Roberts can and should tell the senators his legal beliefs on the right to privacy and the foundations of Roe.

In the end, the views of his wife offer little more information than his religion, Catholic, his alma mater, Harvard, or his portfolio, diversified. Jane's membership in Feminists for Life says little more about the safety of Roe vs. Wade than John's prep school role as Peppermint Patty in a production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

John may or may not be our cup of tea. But we can't find out by reading his wife's tea leaves.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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