Editorials

Has this been a terrible month for George W. Bush? With the administration’s clumsy response to the devastation in New Orleans, and the rising death toll from daily terrorist attacks in Iraq, one might well conclude that the President is on the ropes. And his sinking poll numbers would back that up. But his deft nomination of Judge John G. Roberts to fill the late William Rehnquist’s shoes is a big mark in the “plus” column of his Presidency. In fact, Mr. Bush’s most powerful legacy may be installing Judge Roberts as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Judge Roberts’ record, and his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, reveal a man with superb legal credentials, sharp intelligence and an unflappable demeanor. No one who watched the hearings, Democrat or Republican, could now make the case that Judge Roberts isn’t fully qualified for the job. Indeed, he was even more impressive than Rehnquist was when he joined the court in 1972. Rehnquist, of course, profoundly influenced the court with his intellectual firepower; and one can easily see this nominee doing the same. Which naturally has made many people nervous.

During the hearings, the conservative Judge Roberts—a devout Roman Catholic—chose not to expound on his personal beliefs on issues such as abortion and the separation of church and state. Which was entirely appropriate; nomination to the Supreme Court should not be a popularity contest or have the flavor of an afternoon TV talk show. During his testimony, Judge Roberts made it clear that he has a far broader intellect, and deeper understanding of the human consequences of legal decisions, than some of the strict “originalists” on the court, who believe the Constitution does not evolve in meaning.

Judge Roberts grew up in Indiana, the son of a plant manager at Bethlehem Steel and a homemaker. He attended Harvard University, graduating summa cum laude after three years, and continued at Harvard Law School. In 1980 he clerked for Rehnquist, where he became known for his wit, clarity and no-nonsense approach. He became an associate in the White House counsel’s office during the Reagan administration, then built a thriving corporate practice at the law firm Hogan and Harston. Appointed principal deputy solicitor in the administration of President George H.W. Bush, he argued 39 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and won 25 of them. For the past two years, he has been a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the court second only to the U.S. Supreme Court in power and prestige.

What about his untested views on the so-called “hot button” issues? To demand answers to those questions now would be a pointless parlor game. Judge Roberts is only 50; like most people, he probably can’t say where he’ll be, intellectually and emotionally and psychologically, in five or 10 years. Moreover, he himself doesn’t know how he’d vote on a particular case, because the issues that come before the court range far and wide and can be staggering in their complexity—that’s why they’re being heard by the Supreme Court. And recent appointees to the court have not always voted the way the country thought they would.

Long after this nation gets out of Iraq and New Orleans is rebuilt, John Roberts will be Chief Justice. This will be good for both Democrats and Republicans, and for liberals and conservatives.

Weiner’s Graceful Exit

Graciousness is not a trait we associate with New York politics, an arena notable for its bare-knuckled approach to winning—and losing—public office. Some of the city’s most successful practitioners of the political craft have been tough infighters who knew how and when to plant an elbow in an opponent’s face—think of Fiorello LaGuardia, Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani and Bella Abzug.

That’s why Congressman Anthony Weiner’s decision to stand down rather than contest a runoff for the Democratic Mayoral nomination is so refreshing.

Mr. Weiner was a distant second place in the Democratic primary, but the first-place finisher, Fernando Ferrer, fell just shy of winning the 40 percent needed to avert a runoff. Historically, runoffs produce bitterly contested elections that cost millions of dollars to hold and often lead to divisive splits in the Democratic Party. The runoff between Ed Koch and Mario Cuomo in 1977 was one such contest. Even worse was the 2001 runoff between Mr. Ferrer and then–Public Advocate Mark Green. That mini-campaign led to all kinds of ugly charges, leaving the party in disarray and helping to elect Republican Michael Bloomberg. Some Democrats say their party still hasn’t recovered from the 2001 runoff.

Runoffs first came about to ensure that a fringe candidate didn’t win a major-party nomination in a fluke. In 1969, Mario Procaccino, a very conservative Democrat, won the party’s Mayoral nomination over four liberal Democrats (including Norman Mailer). Many Democrats refused to support Procaccino, voting instead to re-elect John Lindsay on the Liberal line.

Fernando Ferrer is not a fringe character like Procaccino. Indeed, he is a candidate around whom New York’s Democrats can easily rally. Mr. Weiner recognized that he faced a difficult task in a runoff, and knew from history that a runoff could spell trouble for his party in November. He chose, then, not to run.

True, he certainly scored points with his decision, and surely he knows that Democrats will remember him fondly if he decides to run for city office again. Nevertheless, he made a gracious decision. The city doesn’t need another bitter, racially charged runoff. It’s time to compare Freddy Ferrer’s ideas and record with Michael Bloomberg’s.

The Giff of Gaffes

Why is Gifford Miller screwing up his own future? Each time he shows the promise of being the brightest rising star under 40 in New York politics, a story comes out that the City Council Speaker has done something a bit sneaky and unpalatable, showing, at best, a political tin ear and, at worst, a shabby disregard for ethics.

During the recent Democratic primary, this page endorsed Mr. Miller because he alone among the four candidates seemed to understand the importance of building on the success of the Giuliani-Bloomberg years. Mr. Miller lost that race, but more bad news came a few days later, when it was reported that he’d given merit raises to 20 members of his Council staff in the weeks leading up to the primary. While there’s nothing distinctly unethical about the raises, their timing—and the fact that several of those receiving them were helping with Mr. Miller’s campaign—stirred up enough questions to leave voters with a sour taste in their mouths. Taxpayers don’t like to read that a politician has handed out $100,000 in public money without good reason. Mr. Miller needs some quick lessons in sensitivity to the political game.

This wasn’t the first time he’s shown himself to be deaf to political nuance. Earlier this year, it was revealed that he’d spent $1.6 million of the Council budget sending out mailings consisting of campaign ads disguised as official Council business. When first confronted about the mailings, Mr. Miller’s staff insisted that the cost had been just $37,000.

Term limits will bring an end to Mr. Miller’s four years as Council Speaker come December. We still think he has a future in New York politics—as long as he stops following his instincts.