I had the pleasure of meeting the esteemed political analyst (and blogger) Michael Barone over lunch yesterday. I was struck by Barone’s comment that a willingness to lie is an essential quality in a university president these days. For Barone’s comment reminded me of an incident the previous day that, by Barone’s test, would suggest that Donna Shalala, the president of the University of Miami, is eminently qualified for her post.
Shalala, the HHS Secretary during the Clinton administration, told a really bizarre story about the late Chief Justice Rehnquist in her opening remarks at the debate I took part in at the University of Miami Law School.
Every year, on the Sunday just before the Supreme Court term opens, St. Matthew’s Cathedral in D.C. celebrates a “Red Mass” that, as the Cathedral’s website explains, “requests guidance from the Holy Spirit for the conduct of the legal profession” and “is attended by Supreme Court justices and members of Congress, the Cabinet, diplomatic corps, and other government departments.” According to Shalala’s story, at one Red Mass during the Clinton administration, Chief Justice Rehnquist conspicuously stood up during the middle of Mass and got out of his pew, leading the Cardinal to interrupt the Mass. Rehnquist then walked for some considerable distance over to where Shalala was, bent down, whispered something about the Wisconsin Badgers game the day before, and walked back to his pew.
This story struck me immediately as highly implausible. First, it is difficult to imagine that Rehnquist would have engaged in such an offensive breach of decorum. Second, given the large congregation, including a lot of reporters, present at the Red Mass, such a breach would have triggered sharp criticism that would have come to my attention. But, trying to give Shalala the benefit of the doubt, I contacted several individuals who have helped to conduct the Red Mass or attended it, including at least two individuals who attended every Red Mass during the Clinton administration and would have been well positioned to observe the incident Shalala recounted. None of these individuals had ever heard such a charge, and none regarded it as plausible. (Two commented that the sort of informal socializing that Shalala described is common before the Red Mass begins, but changing that detail would of course unravel her whole story.)
The nominal point that Shalala drew from her weird anecdote had something to do with the power of the Court—you see, even a Cardinal interrupts Mass when the Chief Justice starts wandering around. But the obvious point of her anecdote and her other remarks was self-aggrandizement, a quality that a number of folks at the University of Miami told me she has become well known for. The audience apparently was supposed to be impressed by the fiction that the Chief Justice would interrupt a Mass in order to make small talk with her about Wisconsin football. That her canard backhandedly disparaged the late Chief Justice was presumably a bonus, as the Clintonistas seem disposed to nasty post mortem putdowns of Rehnquist.