When I was doing research some years back in the files of the late U.S. Appeals Court Judge Skelly Wright, of the District of Columbia Circuit, I came across an exchange between Wright and Justice William Brennan in which they shared their apprehension about giving Commencement speeches. These two giants in the law had regular-Joe worries about boring the graduates and having their words fall flat.
I’ve been thinking about their Commencement aversion this season because I am giving two speeches and have found that for those of us down some rungs, the mental burden is much lighter. We can plumb their most intriguing thoughts to make our points.
I spoke Saturday at Marquette University Law School’s Hooding Ceremony, and – focused on the importance of preparing to be challenged ethically and avoiding the fallacy that you automatically make the right choices – I turned to something Chief Justice William Rehnquist had told me related to the Watergate scandal. The break-in at the Democratic headquarters that led to the cover-up and fall of President Richard Nixon in 1974 occurred in June of 1972. Only five months before that precipitous incident, Rehnquist had left the Justice Department and taken his seat on the Supreme Court.
Several of Rehnquist’s former colleagues ended up embroiled in Watergate, indicted and convicted. In fact, when the Watergate tapes case came to the Court in summer 1974, Rehnquist recused.
Rehnquist told me he was relieved to have been gone from the Justice Department when the Watergate cover-up occurred. And he said something interesting about the temptations he might have faced if he had remained behind. “You presume you will do the right thing,” he said, “but you never know how you might handle the pressure at the time.” Rehnquist spoke of potential pressure from his bosses and of simply being caught up in a bad situation while thinking you are doing good.
It occurred to me then, and many times since, what a wise thought this was. None of us can presume we are immune from the pressures of politics or money or any of the enticements that come to people who have power — but that especially come to lawyers.