Rehnquist and Katrina: Political Perspective

The death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina compete for the attention of the Bush administration.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Following a week of evolving human suffering in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the dimensions of the disaster remain ill-defined. The storm murderously tore across Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. The confirmed death toll is in the hundreds and rising, perhaps into the thousands. Many died along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in the storm's first fury. Many others died through the week, suffering from hunger, thirst and exposure as they waited for help that was slow to come. Hundreds of thousands of people fled their homes and, days after Katrina blew north, thousands still await relocation to evacuation centers in neighboring states.

Another loss was the death last night of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist after a battle with thyroid cancer. The 80-year-old jurist died at his home in Arlington, Virginia, with his three children by his bedside. Rehnquist served on the Supreme Court for 33 years, and he presided over a conservative shift on the court and the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton. Rehnquist's death leaves a rare second opening on the court. Earlier this summer, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor resigned, and President Bush nominated Federal Circuit Court Judge John Roberts to replace O'Connor. Hearings on Roberts' nomination are due to begin this week before the Senate Judiciary Committee. NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving is in the studio.

Ron, we have a lot to discuss, but first, let's talk about Chief Justice Rehnquist. We will have an obituary later in this hour. But he served on the court for such a long time, first as an associate justice, then as chief. What do you think he's going to best be remembered for?

RON ELVING reporting:

He'll be remembered as a pivotal figure, Liane, one of the most pivotal figures in the long history of the court. He moved the court in a conservative direction. He did so in a decisive fashion. He used the appointments of a succession of Republican presidents, particularly those under Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush, to help him turn around the court and change its direction in the later years of the 20th century. The first part of his service--you mentioned that he was on the court 33 years. The first dozen years or so, he was a dissenter, often a lone dissenter to many of the liberal landmarks of the court in the era of Warren Burger, his predecessor, not particularly a liberal himself but a person who was still presiding over the Warren court in terms of its composition. He objected to many of those landmarks and voted against them. And then over the years, he got the votes to change the direction of the court, and he endured long enough to see its character change decisively and to move back towards a more traditional definition of the Constitution and constitutional rights.

HANSEN: Now confirmation hearings for John Roberts are supposed to begin Tuesday. Will they go ahead as scheduled?

ELVING: It's not clear yet at this point, although I would think probably not. There's going to be a funeral sometime this week. That would certainly interrupt the hearings, which were supposed to begin on Tuesday and run through Friday, at least. My guess is that they'll put them back a couple of days, perhaps even a full week, before they try to begin those hearings. They were in a hurry to do them, of course, because the court's term is supposed to begin on October 1st, and they wanted to have a full court. Now it appears it's going to be difficult to have a full court because it's going to be very difficult to deal with the second vacancy in this short period of time.

HANSEN: Now about the shocking destruction from Hurricane Katrina, help started to arrive in substantial numbers Friday and increased over the weekend. Still, there's been incalculable human suffering. Fingers are being pointed in all directions to place blame for a slow response to this storm. How do you see the potential for this to play out politically?

ELVING: The potential of this is enormous, and much will depend on how the delivery of rescue and relief goes in the next some days and how the president and others involved in the federal response at least are able to turn around the perception that, in the early days, they were either unaware or uncaring about some of the suffering going on, particularly in city of New Orleans. We're going to have hearings on Capitol Hill. Certainly in the Senate we know they're already up and running with the planning for that this very week. Senator Lieberman and Senator Collins of the Senate Governmental Affairs committee have already said they're going to have hearings. I think those will be highly notable and angry. And over on the House side, they will probably have hearings as well.

The administration's been saying that the storm struck so suddenly and was so great in its magnitude that no one could have foreseen this problem. I think the counterargument to that is this is one of the most predicted natural disasters since the eruption of Vesuvius. This was predicted not only by academics and by people in the government, the Army Corps of Engineers; The Times-Picayune newspaper of New Orleans in 2002 ran an extraordinary series of stories that predicted virtually every event we've seen in the last week, including the exact depth of the water and how many people would be trapped in the city because they couldn't get out. There's been a cutback in funding for levees. There's been a lot of environmental relaxation in the area in recent years, and all of that, I think, is going to come back to keep alive those searing images we saw.

HANSEN: What about the longer term, though?

ELVING: Much will depend on how the refugees fare. We've got hundreds of thousands of people that are going to have been in one sense or another dislocated, not just the people in the Astrodome in Houston or in San Antonio, but many hundreds of--many thousands of other people who have been sent to live with relatives or sent to live with strangers. All of those people are going to need a great deal, not just material things, and that kind of political pressure is going to build over the months and years to come.

Also the other issue we have to talk about, although it sounds perhaps more material, and that is gasoline, its availability and its price. And in political terms, there are few things more deadly than having everyone worried about whether or not they can fill their gasoline tank and worried about how they can pay for groceries after they've done so. So that's a question. We don't know how long gas will be at $3. We don't know if it's going to $4 before it gets any lower. So those are the questions that will politically have the most impact.

HANSEN: Well, the president has not been faring very well in the polls this past month. His job approval ratings are down 5 points for August, more like 10 points since spring. What's the next trend?

ELVING: Up to now, the decline in the president's polls has been primarily about Iraq and the high gas prices, which were already at nominal records even before this disaster struck. The rest of the economy, in some respects, is doing pretty well, and employment has just gotten down below 5 percent. But incomes are stagnating, and the good news does not seem to be helping the president. Now the news has suddenly turned very bad indeed. So we may see some rally around the effect--rally-around-the-flag effect, rather, in some parts of the country that may feel somewhat defensive about the president, or we could see his standing erode further as some of his staunchest friends in the South and in Congress bail out.

HANSEN: And briefly, Congress came back early from its break to pass a $10 billion appropriation last week to help the victims of Katrina. What's on the agenda as well?

ELVING: Well, besides the Roberts hearings, they were hoping to go after the estate tax. That was the next item on the agenda, trying to eliminate or at least reduce the estate tax. They also want to talk about Social Security--the president hasn't given up on his Social Security changes--immigration and a number of other issues that were before Congress before any of this happened a month ago.

HANSEN: NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving.

Ron, thanks a lot for coming in.

ELVING: Thank you, Liane.

HANSEN: It's 18 minutes past the hour.

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