The Impeachment Of A President: The Judge - Chief Justice's impeccable reactionary credentials

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The Independent Online
TO SPEAK of "Nixon's revenge" would be going a mite too far. But assuming President Clinton does undergo a full impeachment trial in the Senate early next year, the black-gowned presence of William Hubbs Rehnquist as judge and supreme arbitrator of his fate will symbolise how, in the span of 25 years, US politics has gone full circle.

Rehnquist was nominated to America's highest court by Richard Nixon in 1971 and, after stormy confirmation hearings, took his seat in January 1972. Two-and-a-half years later, a Republican President with a rare capacity to inspire hatred among his political opponents was forced to resign in face of certain impeachment by a Democrat-controlled Congress. Playing a modest but not insignificant part in proceedings was a young staff member on the Watergate committee named Hillary Rodham, later Clinton.

As the country braces for the first impeachment trial of a President since 1968, roles have been uncannily reversed. Nixon's conservative appointee is now Chief Justice of the United States, the man who will act as judge to the jury of 100 senators.

This time it will be a Democratic President at odds with a Republican Congress - but a President who, as Nixon did, contrives to inspire an almost irrational loathing among many of his political foes. Where Nixon saw a left- liberal plot against him, Rehnquist could be depicted as part of the so-called "right-wing conspiracy" to unseat Bill Clinton.

There are of course dissimilarities - most striking the contrast between the bipartisanship over Nixon, which showed the American political process at its finest, and today's vicious partisan brawling, which threatens to make that process unworkable. One thing, however, may be said with confidence: there could not be a Chief Justice that Hillary Clinton would less like to see in charge of the trial of her wayward husband than the 74-year-old William Rehnquist.

For one thing he is an unwavering conservative. From his days as a Goldwater Republican practising law in Arizona, through his spell as head of the crucially important Legal Counsel's Office at Nixon's Justice Department, to his 27 years at the Supreme Court, Rehnquist has sat firmly on his side of the great cultural and political divide through American society. Famously, once appointed to the court, individual justices break free of the ideology for which they were picked; guaranteed tenure for life gives a man remarkable independence from the political patrons who gave him his job. Not, however, Rehnquist, bugbear of liberals for four decades.

Back in the Fifties he opposed school desegregation, backing "separate but equal" education for the races. At Justice, he was a vigorous supporter of pre-trial detention, wiretapping, electronic surveillance and other paraphernalia of Nixon's "law- and-order" programme, soon to be grotesquely perverted in the Watergate affair.

Once upon the bench, he was a dissenting voice in the historic 1973 Roe v Wade judgment that confirmed a woman's right to an abortion, and has opposed gay rights and affirmative action. Today, alongside Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, he forms a troika of unshakeable conservatives on a gradually more liberal Clinton court.

Most ominous for the Clintons is the manifest lack of sympathy by Rehnquist, an acknowledged specialist on the US constitution, for this President's claims of executive privilege to stall the special prosecutor's investigations - uncannily mirroring similar efforts by Nixon 25 years ago.

Then, the argument revolved around the privacy of tapes of Oval Office conversations; this time Clinton has fought to protect the secrecy of advice given him by White House lawyers, and over whether his bodyguards and security men could be forced to give grand jury testimony. In both cases, Rehnquist in person ruled against him.

From there, for many liberals, it is a short jump to identifying the Chief Justice as the secret weapon in chief of Clinton-haters. He is a Republican friendly with, and from a comparable professional background to, Clinton's nemesis Kenneth Starr.

And indeed, it was Rehnquist who picked the right-wing North Carolina judge who headed the three-man panel that astonished neutrals in 1994 by choosing Starr to replace Robert Fiske, a moderate East Coast Republican as special prosecutor. A coincidence? Perhaps. But in today's suspicion-charged Washington. many will be scant inclined to believe it.