Stratification

The other day Eugene Volokh posted a short note referencing a reminiscence about then-Associate Justice Rehnquist:

An Arizona Lawyer’s Reminiscence About Chief Justice Rehnquist: I left the justice at the hotel about 8 that night and picked him up the next morning. He told me how much he enjoyed his walk and that he had three or four beers at one of the “joints.” He said he sat at the bar, talked and told jokes late into the night with a number of the bar’s regulars. Just before he left to return to the hotel, he asked one of his bar mates, Pete, what he did for a living.

Pete told him that he drove a big-rig truck for Pacific International Express. In turn, Pete asked his new buddy “Bill” what he did for a living. Bill said to Pete and his bar gang, “Well, I work in Washington, D.C. I am a member of the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Pete and the gang laughed heartily at Bill’s joke or apparent fantasy, slapped him on the back and offered to buy him one more beer “for the road back to Washington and the Supreme Court.”

There is something cute about this annecdote (and in fact the entire article from which it is from paints an attractive portrait of an unpretentious Associate Justice, one well at odds with the image of the Chief who put those golden Gilbert and Sullivan stripes on his robe).

But there’s also something sad about that story. To me it shows how stratified the US has become or, if you prefer, remains: regular folks just ‘know’ that elites will never mix with them, so they don’t believe it when it happens. And the fact that it happens is so worthy of commentary that it is mentioned in the elite’s obituaries.

There’s more than one bubble in Washington.

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4 Responses to Stratification

  1. sticklerfordetail says:

    “Pete” and (“and”) “the gang” ALL slapped him on the back? and ALL offered to buy him a roader? or just Pete? or some other member of the gang? or Pete slapped him on the back, and another member of “the gang” offered the beer? and who said (and I quote) “for the road back to Washington and the Supreme Court”?

    Sounds like a rather pathetic fantasy to me. Anybody disagree?

  2. Ann Bartow says:

    I’m sort of cynical about these kinds of stories. A family member used to give me a subscription to Reader’s Digest every year for Christmas, and it often contained charming little anecdotes like this about Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas. I always suspected that the stories contained a sharp edge of “those guys were so stupid they didn’t even recognize a Supreme Court Justice.” Meanhwil, many years ago I witnessed Scalia nastily asking a hotel employee, “Don’t you know who I am?”

    Do you believe for a minute that Ruth Bader GInsburg or Sandra Day O’Connor would have received the same sort of hearty, friendly reception from the locals if they had walked alone into a bar and ordered a beer in a strange town? I’m thinking the stories these incidents might have generated would have appeared in the National Enquier rather than Reader’s Digest.

  3. shmuel says:

    It also says that decent guys, i.e. Rehnquist or Roberts, are necessarily the justices the regular stiff needs. Drinking in a bar may be only skin deep.

  4. While the story is certainly designed to present ol’ Bill as a man of the people, a regular guy – it’s also noteworthy that between the hypotheses that:

    1) Your new drinking-buddy in an out-of-the-way joint is joking with you about being a Supreme Court justice.

    and

    2) A Supreme Court justice is your new drinking buddy in an out-of-the-way joint

    Well, #1 is a *LOT* more likely than #2.

    [In some contexts, I have to be careful when I tell people I have two degrees from MIT – it sounds like puffery. I have some friends at MIT who like to go camping and climbing in off-the-beaten-track areas, and can tell stories about being disbelieved when they’re asked about what they do and reply that they teach at MIT]

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