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Wonderful subject; flawed author
on November 23, 2001
With the recent debacles that seem to have dominated recent American political history, the general public has finally become aware of the importance of the U.S. Supreme Court. As opposed to the U.S. Congress or the President, members of the court are appointed for life. They do not have to face reelection nor do they have a set date for retirement. In short, there's probably no presidential appointment that carries more importance than who the president names (and the Senate confirms) to the Supreme Court. One bad nomination (as history has shown time and again) can have a deterimental effect on U.S. policy for decades to come. However, despite its power, the Court has always had a somewhat stuffy, unsexy image. It usually doesn't make for fun reading and for too long, the process that goes into selecting the men and women who populate our highest court has been ignored. For this reason alone, John Dean's The Rehnquist Choice is a long overdue book.
At the title implies, the Rehnquist Choice follows the long course of strategizing that led to the appointment, by Richard Nixon, of William Rehnquist. With his recent prominence following both the impeachment trials and the election debacle, its easy to forget that Rehnquist was seemingly plucked from obscurity. In one of the book's more amusing revelations, we discover that Nixon himself was often unsure of the correct pronunciation of the man he appointed to the highest court in the land. Dean, who was an aide to Nixon, was one of the few members of the administration to lobby for the appointment of Rehnquist and, as he opaquely acknowledges, his lobbying was more of a case of his own need to display power than anything else. Nixon, meanwhile, is shown as he considers a wide range of surprising names before settling on Rehnquist. Indeed, part of the book's fun comes from imagining the possibilities of some of the men that Nixon considered. Nixon, as always a fascinating character who comes across as half-genius and half-child, is especially entertaining as he seriously speculates on naming U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd, a former Klan members who has never actually practiced law, just to annoy Democrats in Congress. Its an interesting inside look and also a sad look at how political concerns trivialize the entire appointment and confirmation process. There's something definitely disturbing about how one of the most powerful men in the country got his job mostly because of the petty egos of Nixon and the members of his dysfunctional staff.
If there is a problem with this insightful record, it is with the author himself. After working in obscurity, Dean came to prominence as one of the youngest (and the quickest to betray his boss) of the president's men. Ever since the Watergate ordeal, Dean's been trying to justify his place and role in the Nixon administration. Basically, in this book and others, Dean's overriding theme seems to be "Everyone in the Nixon White House was bad except for me." Unfortunately, especially towards the end of the book, Dean seems to sacrifice the book's insider details in order to make himself look better. Too much of the book is full of him assuring us that he feels very guilty for having engineered the appointment and confirmation of the man who, in the eyes of many, elected a Republican to the White House in 2000. Regardless of your politics, its hard not to wish that Dean would stop promoting his own sainthood and instead concentrate on the insider details that makes the rest of this book such a wonderful document.