You Can’t Always Choose Your Talents: William Rehnquist, The Novelist

Earlier today, while on a visit to the Stanford campus, I detoured into the Hoover Institution’s archives to take a quick look at a few of William Rehnquist’s papers.

As some of you may know, the former Chief Justice donated his papers to the Hoover Institution, but most of these documents remain under seal. The terms of his gift to the Institution provided that to the extent that his papers involve Supreme Court cases, they are to remain off-limits until such time as all other Justices on the Court at the time of the case in question have passed away. Accordingly, at the present time only Rehnquist’s personal papers, as well as documents that relate to cases heard by the Court between 1972 and 1974, are open for research.

Happily, I wasn’t especially interested in reading old opinion drafts. What piqued my curiosity, instead, were a few other notations in the Rehnquist papers finding aid. First, I saw that the Rehnquist collection included several of his old law-school notebooks. Might be interesting, I thought. Second, the finding aid indicated that Box 193 of the Rehnquist papers included a folder with the title, “Novel Notes, 1974-1980.” Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote a novel?, I wondered. This I gotta see. Third, there was a folder in Box 88, “Ten most important Rehnquist opinions.” I didn’t (and still don’t) know who identified these opinions, but I thought it might be interesting to see what the folder contained.

Let’s start with the notebooks. A few observations:

(1) It appears that as a young man, Chief Justice Rehnquist liked to gamble. One of the notebooks in Box One of the Rehnquist papers includes a few lists of bets that Rehnquist recently had made. I know that Rehnquist liked to play poker (and the notebook does reference a poker game); it looks like he liked to place bets on football games and horse races, too.

(2) It also appears that Rehnquist liked to doodle, and in particular, that he enjoyed drawing portraits of now-obscure individuals in the margins of his notebooks. So, here’s a word of advice to you kids out there: Don’t pay attention in class, and you eventually will become Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

(3) Rehnquist’s Constitutional Law notes are pretty interesting. (Across his classes, Rehnquist took very good notes.) His Constitutional Law course appears to have spent a considerable amount of time on the Commerce Clause; I’d draw some inferences from his notes on this subject, but this post is already going to be too long. Unfortunately for any hope that Rehnquist’s Con Law notes might shed light on his Plessy v. Feguson memo to Robert Jackson, the notes seem to end right at that very case; on the general subject of equal protection as it relates to public accommodations, all Rehnquist writes is, “Ct has said that segregation per se was not denial of equal protection if accommodations are equal.” (I would not expect much editorializing about the case, in any event; that does not appear to have been Rehnquist’s style as a note-taker.)

Now, let’s move on to the “Novel Notes” folder. The title of this blog post comes from a line in a recent episode of “Mad Men,” in which Don Draper tells his wife, Megan, that a person can’t always choose his or her talents. (Megan wants to be an actress, but her gifts may lie more in advertising.) The implication being, that on balance, a person will be happiest if she chooses a career that exploits her talents, rather than trying to tack against the wind.

I did not know William Rehnquist personally (though I suspect I would have liked him).  I don’t know if he ever wanted to be a novelist, or whether it was just a hobby of his. Review of his novel notes establishes beyond argument, however, that G_d did not put William Rehnquist on earth to write novels.

The Rehnquist papers include outlines and drafts of a novel that Rehnquist tried to write in the mid-1970s, and in all candor, it is not very good. Rehnquist was told as much by the editors to whom his agent sent the manuscript. In one letter to Rehnquist, the agent relayed an editor’s criticism of the writing as “a little stiff,” such that the manuscript “would need a very considerable craftsman/editor to shape it into an acceptable novel for publication.” This editor also commented that “the author insists on telling when [he] ought to be showing or revealing, and there is not enough complexity in the case itself.” In another letter to Rehnquist, the agent reports that a different editor liked the plot, but  ”[w]here he feels the book falls down is in the sheer writing skill.”  Yup, that can be a problem.

I wonder what impact this criticism had on Rehnquist. Here you have an immensely talented man, so successful at one type of writing, basically being told that as a novelist, he’s an incompetent. I suspect that Rehnquist had a sufficiently well-developed sense of humor that he didn’t take these rejections too personally, but maybe they did sting just a little.

Finally, let’s have some fun with the “Ten Most Important Rehnquist Opinions” Folder. I will open up the comments function on this blog for a while to accommodate guesses as to what these 10 opinions are. If someone correctly names six out of the 10 opinions contained within the folder, I will donate $50 to an animal rescue shelter. (And, hey, Brazilian spammers, 6/10 is an inflexible bar, one that I will refuse to modify even if you tell me that my blog “Is very interesting. One of the best ones out there. I really enjoy your points of view.”)

Hint: the “Top 10″ folder within the Rehnquist papers includes ONLY opinions written between 1972 and 1981; my guess is that it was pulled together for some 10-year anniversary of Rehnquist’s appointment to the bench. So Rehnquist’s later ouvre is out, and several of the opinions within the folder are, today, quite obscure. Again, I don’t know who identified these 10 opinions, but it would be interesting if it was Rehnquist himself . . .

2 thoughts on “You Can’t Always Choose Your Talents: William Rehnquist, The Novelist

  1. Pingback: Monday Medley « No Pun Intended

  2. Pingback: Rehnquist’s Top-Ten List (1981) |

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