THOSE WHO contend that history has a twisted sense of humour found their perfect example this week in the spectacle of William Hubbs Rehnquist being sworn in to preside as an "impartial" judge over the impeachment trial of President Clinton.
The least of it is that Rehnquist, a highly ideological conservative, was sworn to judicial impartiality by the presiding officer and oldest member of the Senate, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, a man so far to the Right that 51 years ago he ran for President as a "Dixiecrat" in protest against the very modest moves the Democratic party (to which Thurmond then belonged) had made in the direction of conceding civil rights to black Americans.
Another irony lies in the fact that Rehnquist, as an amateur historian, published a book in 1992, Grand Inquests, about the two previous most important impeachment trials in American history: those of Chief Justice Samuel Chase in 1813, and of President Andrew Johnson in 1868. The book is being republished, and has already reached the bestseller lists, but Rehnquist has decided not to update it for fear of giving away his opinion on matters that could come up in the Clinton trial. That has not stopped Washington journalists rushing to see if they can glean any hints from it about how Rehnquist will conduct the trial. The failure of bipartisan attempts to cut the trial process short means that Rehnquist is now bound to have considerable influence over the proceedings. For the senators, not normally short of a word or several hundred on most subjects, will be largely silenced in the impeachment trial. They will be taking part as jurors, and however much they may take part in offstage manoeuvring, in the trial itself they will be limited to submitting questions in writing through the Chief Justice. The constitution prescribes that the President can only be found guilty on an impeachment by a two-thirds majority, that is, by 67 senators, which is 12 more than the present Republican majority of 55. Twenty-six rules have been handed down to guide the senators. But once the trial starts, they will be entering largely uncharted waters, so the Chief Justice's role will certainly be influential and could be decisive. That is why the irony is so profound. For President Clinton is a relatively centrist Democrat, far from an extreme liberal by objective measures. But to the conservative Republicans who impeached him in the House of Representatives, and even more to the "movement conservatives", the Religious Right, the financial backers and ideological journalists who egg them on, Clinton is objectionable as a liberal. Privately, Chief Justice Rehnquist certainly shares their opinion. He is an unashamed ideological conservative. He was sent to the Supreme Court 27 years ago as such by President Nixon, as part of a calculated plan on Nixon's part to end liberal domination of the Court. His voting and his opinions as first a justice, then chief justice, have been reliably conservative. Indeed, while his impartiality should not be impugned, on a number of occasions he has even intervened judicially in the preliminaries of the President's investigation in ways that helped to bring Clinton before the bar of impeachment. By the end of the 1960s, the Republicans, and conservatives generally, were furious at what they saw as the activist liberal judgements of the "Warren Court" - the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren. Those decisions included the famous declaration, in the Brown case in 1954, that racially segregated education was unconstitutional. But there were other decisions - banning prayer in schools, protecting the rights of criminal suspects against the police, endorsing affirmative action and mandating school busing in the interests of racial equality - that outraged conservatives scarcely less than Brown. President Nixon set out to destroy the liberal majority on the Supreme Court. …