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The legacy Antonin Scalia leaves after his three decades of service on the U.S. Supreme Court is the mark of a man who cared deeply about the nation he served and the people whose stories and experiences made it great; a man of faith who was willing to stand in the breach and defend, elegantly, the principles in which he believed.
Resolute to the end, Scalia also comported himself unfailingly with grace, good humor, and a genuine respect for others, including many with whom he was destined to disagree.
These qualities helped make him one of the most consequential Justices of the past century. They would also, I believe, have helped make him an excellent vice-president or president of the United States.
Twenty years ago, while serving as chairman of the U.S. House Republican Conference, I tried to persuade Scalia to become Senator Bob Dole’s running mate on the 1996 GOP presidential ticket.
And out of a sense of duty, he listened.
I share the recollection of this ill-fated recruitment effort now because I believe it helps to shed light on the person Antonin Scalia really and truly was.
After four years of Bill and Hillary Clinton, I believed, the country was hungry for leadership grounded in principle. Dole had served the country admirably, not just in the United States Senate, but in World War II, where he’d been gravely injured.
The center of Dole’s appeal was the opportunity to return gravitas and adult leadership to the White House. But to turn it into electoral success, nearly everyone agreed, Dole needed some rocket fuel. He needed a running mate who would act as a force multiplier for the argument that was the centerpiece of Dole’s campaign, while also bringing an element of buzz and excitement that had been missing, particularly among Reagan-Gingrich conservatives yearning for a champion.
The solution, I believed, was right in front of us — or more accurately, across the street from my hideaway office in the Capitol, in the chambers of the U.S. Supreme Court. It was a brilliant, engaging, conservative Italian-American justice with a large, Catholic family, with potential cross-generational appeal and the ability to help reconstruct the broad coalition that had made Ronald Reagan president 16 years earlier. It was a pick nobody would have seen coming, and one with the potential to ignite the Dole campaign in a manner no one thought possible.
Scalia agreed to meet me and Barry Jackson, my chief of staff, for a clandestine lunch discussion at one of Scalia’s favorite establishments, Washington, D.C.’s A.V. Ristorante (now, sadly, closed).
It was there that Jackson and I made our pitch, over a pepperoni and anchovies pizza.
Scalia’s reaction was a mixture of amusement and humility, tempered by an underlying seriousness of purpose that reflected his love of country and sense of obligation to it. He asked very direct questions on both the practicality of running — including how a candidacy would impact his role on the Court, what Dole’s reaction would be if he were to express willingness and, ironically, what the impact on the political process might be of a vacancy appearing on the Court in the months before a presidential election.
Scalia was not a man who harbored any thoughts of seeking elective office, which intensified his appeal. But in spite of his personal misgivings, he also understood what was at stake for the country, and felt compelled to listen, out of a sense of duty.
And it was perhaps out of that same sense of duty that Scalia, while not saying “yes,” also didn’t say “no.”
As he’d promised to do, Justice Scalia called a day or two later with his response. I was pulled out of a meeting to take his call.
“John, you’re not a lawyer, right? Well, write this down,” Scalia asked. He then dictated his response, which I would later learn* were the exact words Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes had used in response to similar entreaties decades earlier:
“The possibility is too remote to comment upon, given my position.”
Scalia gave his blessing for me to share the response with both House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and with Sen. Dole himself.
The Speaker loved the idea.
Dole, who had just returned from his Senate retirement tour, reacted positively as well, but found it hard to believe Scalia would leave the Court for such a gamble. He asked why I thought he might. I shared Scalia’s response.
Dole laughed. “He didn’t say no, so that means yes,” the former Senate Majority Leader observed.
In hindsight, I believe Sen. Dole had a sense that the country needed Scalia to stay where he was. He placed Scalia on his list of contenders, but ultimately chose Jack Kemp to be his running mate.
The Kemp selection accomplished the goal of bringing excitement to the ticket. It also ensured that the nation would continue to benefit from Justice Scalia’s service on the U.S. Supreme Court — service we now know would continue for nearly two more decades.
We’ll never know what might have been, had a Dole-Scalia ticket been forged in the summer of 1996. But we do know our nation was blessed to have Antonin Scalia defending the Constitution on the highest court in the land for a generation. And the legacy he leaves is that of one of America’s greatest justices, of any era.
May Justice Scalia’s family find comfort in this legacy as we mourn his passing, and may he now rest in peace, after an American life well-lived.
* Editor’s note: In an earlier version of this piece, the author wrote that Scalia had told him at the time that the phrase was used by Charles Evan Hughes. The author recalled after publication that Scalia had not mentioned Hughes directly, and he had only learned about the connection later. The piece has been updated accordingly.