The Oval: Changing the Subject?

They looked like the quintessentially civilized gentlemen. It was early enough in the summer morning to stroll through the colonnade in front of the Oval Office wearing dark jackets without breaking into one of Washington's heavy sweats. They had just shared a cup of coffee and congratulated one another on a fine first day working together. All they needed was a croquet set for a little spin around the Rose Garden.

It was Wednesday morning and President Bush had summoned reporters and photographers for his second photo op with Judge John Roberts in 12 hours. The message was clear: his Supreme Court nominee would bring "great dignity to the court" after a confirmation process that he hoped would proceed "in a dignified, civil way." There was so much dignified and civilized behavior on display that Judge Roberts could only go one place from there: to the world's greatest deliberative and dignified body, otherwise known as the United States Senate. Roberts would spend the day sipping more cups of coffee in senators' offices while gently reminding them that they spared him the most beastly treatment in his 2003 confirmation to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Such deliberations only seemed appropriate after the president spent so much time in what he called, on Tuesday night, his own "thorough and deliberative process." And sure enough, most of those senators destined to oppose Roberts struck a thorough and deliberative pose. Even John Kerry took a brief respite from his latest campaign (this one to fire Karl Rove) to promise to "conduct a thorough, independent review" of Roberts. This is, of course, the phony war before the real war, a time to handle the delicate china before someone hurls it at your head. After all, the public expects nothing less, according to recent polls. In a recent Gallup poll, 63 percent thought the president was somewhat or very likely to appoint a Supreme Court nominee whose religious beliefs would "inappropriately" influence his or her legal decisions. In the same poll, 86 per cent thought Democrats were somewhat or very likely to block that nominee for "inappropriate" political reasons. And we all know that Congress hates to disappoint public expectations.

So what are Roberts's chances on the Hill? The White House and its Republican allies continue to tout the "unprecedented" level of consultations that Bush has undertaken with members of the Senate, especially Democrats. "We've talked to around 70 members of the Senate, three quarters of the Senate Democrats," Dan Bartlett, the president's counselor, told reporters Tuesday night. He said that Roberts's name had come up repeatedly during Bush's meetings with members of the Senate, suggesting the lawmakers had mentioned Roberts as someone they would consider for the top court. A reporter later asked Bartlett if the administration's consultations had given them any indication that Roberts could draw "consensus" support among members of the Senate, a question that prompted a curious response from Candi Wolff, the White House's embattled congressional liaison, who was sitting in on the briefing. Upon hearing the question, Wolff, who has faced criticism for the administration's less-than-stellar relationship with Congress, simply burst out laughing. "I'm not going to start doing vote counting," Bartlett replied.

Much attention will be lavished on the character and mind of John Roberts. But in many ways the nominee tells a more fascinating tale about the character and mind of George W. Bush. Supreme Court nominees are one of the most important building blocks in a presidential legacy, defining the presidents who name them long after they leave the Oval. As such, they tend to be chosen in their maker's image. In 2000 Bush ran for the presidency as "a different kind of Republican." That meant he was just as conservative as the rest of the GOP, only less strident than people like Newt Gingrich. Sure enough, John Roberts is a different kind of Republican judge--solidly conservative on abortion, but less strident than people like Antonin Scalia.

Bush vouched for Roberts's character after a session in the White House residence that his aides stressed was intimate. The president considers himself an ace judge of character, and he interviewed Roberts in the sitting area outside the "most intimate quarters" of the First Couple, according to Bartlett. So intimate that White House pets Barney and Beazley were sitting at their feet during what Bartlett called both a personal and professional conversation. Even the Bush dogs were comfortable with their master's choice. That's no surprise, given how Bush spoke of Roberts on Tuesday night in terms he might have used about himself. "He's a man of extraordinary accomplishment and ability. He has a good heart," he said on Tuesday night, using his favorite phrase to express his faith-based compassion. "He has the qualities Americans expect in a judge: experience, wisdom, fairness and civility. He has profound respect for the rule of law and for the liberties guaranteed to every citizen."

The Roberts announcement has one other quality: impeccable timing. Did the administration push up the announcement to take the heat off Karl Rove and his role in the CIA leak investigation? Administration officials have strongly denied the charge, crediting the accelerated timetable to the fact that Congress is on the verge of a recess. Bartlett told reporters Wednesday night that the White House wanted to have "adequate" time for Roberts to meeting with members of the Senate before they left town. "If we would have waited until the last two days of the month or so, we would have not have been able to officially get his name into the process," he said. "This was driven by that time clock ... [It was] the only consideration when choosing Judge Roberts to be his nominee."

Yet the Roberts announcement does conveniently change the subject--something White House officials are unlikely to complain about. Indeed, there's already been an impact. On Monday, roughly 85 percent of the questions at the daily press briefing were focused on Rove and the leak investigation. By Tuesday morning, amid speculation that Bush would announce his Supreme Court nominee that day, Press Secretary Scott McClellan fielded just two questions on the disclosure of the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame. There were no cups of coffee. But compared to last week, it was still very civilized.