Bush's Nomination of Roberts a Balancing Act

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President Bush's nomination of John Roberts to be the next chief justice comes just two days after the death of William H. Rehnquist. The president's announcement comes as he prepares to tour hurricane-stricken areas and faces political fire for the slow pace of relief efforts so far.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

President Bush has nominated Judge John Roberts to be the next chief justice of the United States.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Twenty-five years ago John Roberts came to Washington as a clerk to Justice William Rehnquist. In his boss, the young law clerk found a role model, a professional mentor and a friend for life. I'm certain that Chief Justice Rehnquist was hoping to welcome John Roberts as a colleague, and we're all sorry that day didn't come.

MONTAGNE: If confirmed, John Roberts would replace his mentor, William Rehnquist, who died of cancer on Saturday.

NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea's at the White House and joins us now.

And, Don, good morning and...

DON GONYEA reporting:

Good morning.

MONTAGNE: ...events are moving fast.

GONYEA: Yes. A surprise announcement, though the actual result is not that big of a surprise. But word of Rehnquist's death put the White House into high gear to try to figure out how to best proceed. Obviously, the naming of a chief justice is a huge decision. It would have been the subject of intense speculation and lobbying and jockeying by interest groups trying to influence the president's decision. This also comes at a time of crisis--Hurricane Katrina, which the president needs to be on top of, and it comes at a time when the president is hurting in the polls. Iraq has driven his approval ratings down. So they decided to move fast. Roberts was brought into the White House last night for a meeting. The president says it's important that they have a chief justice in that center chair when the court begins its new term in exactly four weeks. Roberts was asked if he was willing to take the job; he said yes.

MONTAGNE: And would this hurricane and the crisis surrounding it be the motivation for making this nomination so quickly on a holiday, on a day when the president is preparing yet another tour of hurricane-stricken areas--is headed that way?

GONYEA: I think so. Rehnquist's death--certainly not unexpected, but this isn't the kind of timing the White House was looking for. Mr. Bush obviously has hurricane relief to worry about, and it's an effort that has not been getting stellar reviews. You could say that by naming Roberts today so quickly it gets one big decision out of the way, ending a lot of the speculation and intrigue. Additionally, politically, the White House has always seen John Roberts as a good news story for the administration. They've been--people like him. It pleases his conservative base as well; that's important. And they expect a relatively easy confirmation process, even with this change.

MONTAGNE: And the president, of course, is leaving again today for another tour of the areas ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, Baton Rouge and Mississippi. Tell us more about where he'll go, how this will be different from his trip to the region just a few days ago.

GONYEA: Right. It'll be different in that he does not go to New Orleans. They're choosing different locations this time. As you mentioned, Baton Rouge and Poplarville, Mississippi. In a lot of ways, it will be similar to last week, though. With three days have passed, the president will be looking to highlight an improving situation on the ground. He can be expected to talk about how this was such a cataclysmic event for the region, and he'll comfort people who have been displaced. Also, though, he sees this as an important way to really demonstrate that he's on top of the situation. That's also why we saw Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in the region over the weekend. It's a big, visible demonstration of concern that gets to how important this is for Mr. Bush politically as well.

MONTAGNE: Don, thanks very much.

GONYEA: My pleasure.

MONTAGNE: NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea.

This is NPR News.

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