Remarks at the Funeral Service for Chief Justice of the United States William H. Rehnquist
Jim and Janet and Nancy; members of the Rehnquist family; colleagues of the Chief Justice:
This afternoon the people of the United States mourn the passing of the leader of a branch of the Government, the eight Justices of the Court pay final homage to their Chief and friend, and a loving family bids farewell to a kind and gentle soul.
William Hubbs Rehnquist accomplished many things in his good life and rose to high places. And we remember the integrity and the sense of duty that he brought to every task before him. That character was clear in the young man of 18 who signed up for the Army Air Corps during the Second World War. The Nation saw that character in his more than three decades of service on our highest Court. And the Nation saw it again last January the 20th, when the Chief Justice made his way onto the Inaugural platform. Many will never forget the sight of this man, weakened by illness, rise to his full height and say in a strong voice, "Raise your right hand, Mr. President, and repeat after me."
It was more than a half-century ago that Bill Rehnquist first came to the Supreme Court as a law clerk. As he would later recount the story, he made that trip from Milwaukee in the middle of the winter in an old blue Studebaker with no heater. He recalled that as he began the journey, he patted that car and thought, "Don't let me down, baby."
After a year-and-a-half in the Chambers of Justice Robert Jackson, Bill Rehnquist left DC and headed for Phoenix with an even greater love for the law and with something more, a beautiful fiancee named Natalie Cornell. She would share his walk in life for nearly 40 years. All who knew the Chief know how he cherished Nan and their time together and how much he missed his wife in the years without her.
In every chapter of his life, William Rehnquist stood apart for his powerful intellect and clear convictions. In a profession that values disciplined thought and persuasive ability, a talent like his gets noticed in a hurry. Still in his forties, he became the 100th Justice of the Supreme Court, and one of the youngest in modern times.
After he moved to the center chair, William Rehnquist led the Court for nearly two decades and earned a place among our greatest chief justices. He built consensus through openness and collegiality. He was a distinguished scholar of the Constitution and a superb administrator of the judicial conference. He understood the role of a judge and the place of courts in our constitutional system. He was prudent in exercising judicial power and firm in defending judicial independence.
On the bench and as a leader of the Federal courts, Chief Justice Rehnquist was always a calm and steady presence. In his thinking and in his bearing, he personified the ideal of fairness, and people could sense it. Inside the Court, no man could have been a finer steward of the institution, its customs, and its history.
As long as William Rehnquist was presiding, colleagues and advocates knew that the proceedings would be orderly, on time, businesslike, and occasionally humorous. Once during an oral argument, a lawyer criticized his opponent's position by saying, "I doubt very much it will fool this Court." The Chief Justice replied, "Don't overestimate us." [Laughter]
In his time on the Court, William Rehnquist served with 16 other justices, and by all accounts, each one of his colleagues regarded the man with respect and affection. Justice William Brennen once said to a visitor, "I cannot begin to tell you... how fond all of us are of him personally."
Throughout this city of government, people saw William Rehnquist in that same way. He carried himself with dignity but without pretense. Like Ronald Reagan, the President who elevated him to Chief Justice, he was kindly and decent, and there was not an ounce of self-importance about him. It is rare that—it is a rare man who can hold a prominent position in Washington, DC, for more than 30 years and leave behind only good feelings and admiration. That's what William Rehnquist did.
His law clerks knew him as a demanding boss who pressed them, as one said, to "read carefully, write clearly, and to think hard." But the clerks also became an extension of the Chief's family, joining him for walks around the Capitol, or for lunch or dinner, or games of tennis or charades. His clerks remember those times with fondness. And even more, they remember his vast store of knowledge and his daily example of clear thinking and character. To work beside William Rehnquist was to learn how a wise man looks at the law and how a good man looks at life.
The Chief Justice was devoted to his public duties but not consumed by them. He was a renaissance man, a man who adored his family, a man who always kept things in balance. He read works of history and wrote a few fine ones of his own. He knew how to paint, and he knew how to win at bridge and poker. He had a passion for the classics, for astronomy, and for college basketball. He enjoyed music, and having stood next to him during the national anthem, I can tell you the man loved to sing. [Laughter]
William Rehnquist often reminded young lawyers of the ancient insight that time is the most valuable thing a man can spend. He spoke with feeling about the need to choose wisely, doing your job well, and never forgetting the other important things that also take time: love for one another, being a good parent to a child, service to your community. He might have added, the importance of being a loving grandfather, because he was clearly that too.
The 16th Chief Justice of the United States was given 80 years of life. He filled those years with purpose, a gracious spirit, and faithful service to God and country to the very end. He now goes to his rest beside his beloved Nan. And William H. Rehnquist leaves behind the gratitude of our whole Nation. We're proud of our Chief Justice, and America honors his memory. May God bless him.
NOTE: The President spoke at 2:45 p.m. at St. Matthew's Cathedral. In his remarks, he referred to James Rehnquist, Janet Rehnquist, and Nancy Spears, children of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. A tape was not available for verification of the content of these remarks. The related proclamation of September 4 on the death of Chief Justice Rehnquist is listed in Appendix D at the end of this volume.
George W. Bush, Remarks at the Funeral Service for Chief Justice of the United States William H. Rehnquist Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/213669