Rehnquist remembered for optimism

President, family speak at funeral service for chief justice of high court

September 08, 2005|By David G. Savage | David G. Savage,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist was remembered by President Bush yesterday as a good and gracious man who "earned a place among our greatest chief justices," while his children recalled a father who always saved time for family and fun.

"No one smelled more roses than my dad," said James C. Rehnquist, the only son of the chief justice, who died Saturday at age 80.

The funeral at St. Matthew's Cathedral was highlighted by stories describing Rehnquist's lifelong enthusiasm for games, books, songs, poems, witticisms, bets and geography trivia.

His daughter Nancy Spears said, "He was an incredible optimist," even in the face of a cancer that proved to be fatal. When the weather outside was bleak, he could be counted upon to check the sky and report back, "It's clearing in the west."

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said she first met Rehnquist when he was a busboy at a Stanford University dormitory in 1946. A few years later, they met again in law school, where he was "clearly the brightest student in our class." Neither could have imagined they would end up on the Supreme Court together, she said.

She visited with Rehnquist this summer and said his illness did not take away his optimism or determination.

"The chief was a betting man," she told the lawmakers, judges and family friends who filled the church. "I think [he] bet he could live out another term despite his illness. He lost that bet, as did all of us, but he won the prizes for a life well lived."

The Supreme Court justices are notoriously independent, but O'Connor said Rehnquist was able to run the court using gentle persuasion.

"I grew up on a ranch. The really expert riders of horses let the horse know immediately who is control, but then guide with the horse with loose reins and very seldom use the spurs," she said. "So it was with our chief. He guided us with loose reins and used the spurs only rarely to get us up to speed with our work."

Bush described Rehnquist as the rare Washington figure who held a powerful position in government for decades - he was on the court for 33 years, the last 19 as chief - but never took on an air of self-importance.

"He carried himself with dignity but without pretense," Bush said. "Like Ronald Reagan, the president who elevated him to be chief justice, he was kindly and decent, and there was not an ounce of self-importance about him."

Bush was accompanied to the service by his wife, Laura, and by Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne. The funeral also drew leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee and Rehnquist's former law clerks, including Judge John G. Roberts Jr., chosen by Bush to succeed the chief justice.

President John F. Kennedy's funeral was held at St. Matthew's in 1963. Rehnquist was a member of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in suburban McLean, Va., but his family asked to hold the service at the Roman Catholic cathedral in downtown Washington to accommodate the large crowd.

O'Connor and Rehnquist's children stressed the importance of humor to the chief justice. He "could break up a tense moment with a joke," O'Connor said.

James Rehnquist said his father was not a jokester, but rather a quirky, dry wit: "He could forgive everything but not having a sense of humor."

His granddaughter, Natalie Ann Rehnquist Lynch, read a letter she had sent to "Gramps" this summer, thanking him for all the time he had spent playing card games and croquet with her. She said she even appreciated the geography quizzes that were a regular feature of her visits with her granddad and pointed out that, without him, she "would know nothing about bridge or poker or fan-tan, or how to look in the reflection of the window to see the cards of the person sitting across from you."

Rehnquist's pastor, the Rev. George W. Evans Jr., reported that the first hint of the chief justice's illness came last summer when he reported difficulty in singing the hymns at a Sunday service.

Rehnquist was buried in a private service at Arlington National Cemetery next to his wife, Natalie, who died in 1991.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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