Roberts blends low-key style, high ambition

The story of John G. Roberts Jr., as told by those who know him, is the chronicle of a Supreme Court nominee foretold.

Looking back on it now, it's obvious that a president someday would pick Judge Roberts to sit on the highest court in the land, say his friends and associates. He was the smartest kid in high school, but never overbearing; at Harvard, he ran the Law Review with a craftsman's touch.

He's remembered as funny, a hard worker, intensely analytical. He's even got a high-court-ready hobby. His friend and mentor Chief Justice William Rehnquist is famously fond of the English comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan; Judge Roberts loves uber-Brit author P.G. Wodehouse, progenitor of Jeeves.

"With hindsight, it just seems perfect," says law school chum Charles Davidow, who's traded Wodehouse books with Roberts for years. "He is exactly what you would look for in someone going on to be on the Supreme Court."

In this inevitability he is different from the man who picked him to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. President Bush, by all accounts, drifted along until early adulthood, focused on his next party as much as the next step in his career. Even Vice President Cheney dropped out of Yale at one point, before beginning his rise to the top of the Republican establishment.

John Roberts never dropped out of any school to find himself. To the contrary, he appears to have been the most driven - if not the best - student in every school he was ever in.

And now he's preparing for the most important oral exam of his life: confirmation hearings. Judge Roberts spent last week in characteristic groundwork, meeting privately with Republican and Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Controversy may yet erupt over his nomination, but to this point it appears that the much-predicted battle over President Bush's first nomination to the Supreme Court is a fizzle.

A new Washington Post/ABC poll found 59 percent of respondents in favor of Roberts's confirmation, and just 23 percent opposed.

"The process is off to a good start," said President Bush in his weekly radio address.

A quiet corner of America

John Glover Roberts Jr. was born in Buffalo, N.Y., on January 27, 1955. But his formative years were spent in Long Beach, Ind., a beautiful and affluent community on the Lake Michigan shore.

Developed in the 1920s, Long Beach was one of the first towns anywhere to be built around a golf course. Its town hall and first public grade school were designed by John Lloyd Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright's son. Beachfront homes today sell for $1 million and up.

Roberts' father, John Roberts Sr., was a top executive at a new Bethlehem Steel plant in nearby Burns Harbor. John Jr. attended Notre Dame School. By all accounts it was a comfortable childhood in a corner of America that remained unroiled by the turmoil of the era.

"Things were different back then. You told the kids 'don't do this' and they didn't," says Teddy Liddell, who was principal of Notre Dame School in the 1960s.

In this environment the young John Roberts thrived.

He was "an outstanding student, but very quiet, low-key, never lorded his intelligence over others," says Mrs. Liddell.

After Notre Dame, John moved on to La Lumiere, a nearby independent Catholic boarding school named for the former owners of the bucolic wooded land on which it was built. Only a few years old at the time Roberts attended, La Lumiere had been founded by a group of Chicago-area and Indiana business executives. Courses included "great books," and, for seniors, "moral choices."

The young Roberts participated in virtually every activity of the small school, from athletics to student government to the newspaper and the drama club. Girls considered him a "hunk", says Joan Langley, a teacher whose own children attended school with the Roberts kids.

The Roberts and Langley families belonged to Sand Creek Club in nearby Chesterton, which was owned by Bethlehem Steel and had a pool, golf course, and tennis courts. But in the summer John Roberts, like most of his contemporaries, worked. "The boys had down and dirty jobs in the mill, but the pay was good and it gave them some spending money," says Joan Langley.

John Roberts Jr. graduated in the fifth class to exit La Lumiere, and headed off to Harvard. His parents remained in the area until the mid-1980s, when his father was named general manager of the Bethlehem Steel plant in Johnstown, Pa.

Today the son is a local legend. That might have been the case even if he had not been tapped for the Supreme Court. "Everybody remembers John Roberts," says David Langley, a retired Bethlehem executive and John Langley's husband. "He was just smarter than everybody else."

Law school wunderkind

The future nominee cut the same sort of swath through Cambridge, Mass. Fellow students from his Harvard years remember him as a person who was well-liked, though not gregarious; a hard worker, though never showy; and stand-out intelligent in an environment where the criteria to measure that is quite high.

Former colleagues remember him as a rare person who was both persuasive and persuadable. In a word, he was ... judicious. It's almost as if he were wearing black robes at age 21.

"He almost enjoyed it when you persuaded him that he was wrong," says Bill Kayatta, who met Roberts in their first year of law school. "A lot of people are not like that. They will look like they just lost a tennis match."

Roberts entered Harvard Law School in the fall of 1976. Eventually he won the post of managing editor of the Harvard Law Review - the person charged with making the editorial train run on time.

In that position Roberts wrote little himself, but dealt with the writings of others. He worked long hours, as did all masthead editors on the staff.

Stephen Galebach met Roberts on the first day of their law review careers, in the stuffy stacks of a library without air conditioning. He says the fact that Roberts thrived in the craftsman-like job of managing editor shows how nonpartisan he is. "He had no strong drive to stamp the law review with his particular views," says Mr. Galebach.

Roberts graduated from Harvard Law in 1979. A succession of fast-track positions quickly followed. From 1979 to 1980 he was a law clerk for Judge Henry Friendly for the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals. Next he was a clerk for then-associate Supreme Court justice William Rehnquist. After a quick stint in the Justice Department he served four years, 1982 to 1986, in President Reagan's Office of the White House Counsel. Then he entered the lucrative world of Washington private legal practice at a top firm.

In January 1992 the first President Bush nominated him for a federal judgeship on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. But then followed what could have been a crushing career blow, in that the Democratic-controlled Senate did not take up his nomination prior to that fall's election, and Bill Clinton's victory.

Roberts would have been one of the youngest federal appeals judges ever, says Richard Lazarus, a Georgetown University law professor and friend from Harvard Law days. But he did not let the disappointment wear him down. He spent the next decade developing himself into one of the most skilled members of the Supreme Court bar, arguing dozens of cases before the high court. He married, and adopted two children.

"He took what could have been a depressing and disappointing time, and made himself much more full, professionally and personally," says Professor Lazarus.

On Jan. 7, 2003, another President Bush nominated him - once again for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. This time the Senate confirmed him in four months.

Now his short record of opinions and his lengthier record of work in the Reagan administration are undergoing intense scrutiny by Republicans and Democrats alike. Some legal or ideological controversy may yet emerge. But people from his past say a personal controversy is unlikely in the extreme.

The Rev. Michael C. McFarland is president of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., alma mater of Roberts' wife, Jane. The Robertses "pretty much are what they appear," he says. "Everyone's probing around for some new threat they can pull out. But they're both really genuine people."

Reporting by Barbara Stodola in Long Beach, Ind., Sara B. Miller in Cambridge, Mass., and Adam Karlin in Boston.

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