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The President plainly savored the suspense. He began with what seemed a deliberately tantalizing roll call of the kinds of people being urged on him for the court—Senators, Congressmen, a woman. He delivered a short lecture on "judicial conservatism." Finally, to the general bewilderment, he recited the name of Lewis Powell, then that of William Rehnquist. After the months in which his Supreme Court nominations had been condemned as second-rate, Nixon relished repeating the words excellence and distinction.
To Nixon's jubilation, his choices came close to producing utter surprise. White House advisers insist that although Friday and Lillie had been the leading candidates, a back-up list included Rehnquist and Powell. An understandably Machiavellian theory immediately surfaced that Nixon had deliberately sent out his list of six while intending all along to nominate Rehnquist and Powell, their names preserved from advance criticism. In that way, according to the theory, the less than distinguished earlier possibilities would make the final choices seem, by comparison, Olympians of the bar.
But the theory was wrong. Except for the A.B.A.'s adverse reports and the accumulation of criticism from other quarters, Nixon would have nominated Friday and Mrs. Lillie. When those two main candidates became too much of a political risk, Nixon and Mitchell fished elsewhere. Powell, as a former A.B.A. president and an impressive legal figure who had long been among the Administration's candidates, was a natural counter to the "mediocrity" argument.
The case of Rehnquist is more intriguing. He was, ironically, one of the chief architects of Mitchell's list of nominees, working closely with Kleindienst. Rehnquist seems to have had a strong internal White House lobby advertising his gifts. In any case, it was a sign of either haste or secrecy that Rehnquist's three children, watching the President's address, gasped when they heard their father's name. It was the first they knew of his nomination.
Nixon's abandoning his earlier list came as a relief even to his own Cabinet. One Cabinet officer exclaimed after the speech: "Thank God the parachute opened!" The episode was a measure of Nixon's growing sense of self-confidence. The White House staff regarded it as a triumph. "In the end," said one adviser, "he opted for excellence. I got the clear impression that the President was saying, 'I'll never appoint another Carswell. I'll never appoint another mediocrity.' " The notion was not entirely convincing. He had been prepared to nominate two legal figures with less than distinguished credentials.