Since Saturday night when I learned of Rehnquist’s death I’ve been wondering what about it really hit me. Rehnquist was many things, many things I have no connection to. A conservative at heart, a successful servant of the courts, and a Stanford graduate. There are very few things I ever agreed with him on, yet news of his death engulfed me.
Today after Richard Stallings’ class, as I watched for a vote in the Senate, and as I wrote in my journal, I figured it out. The one event in U.S. History that leaves me exhilarated, occasionally sleepless, and completely intrigued, is an event that happened before my lifetime. I am entirely dependent on others who were alive, who were there, and who cared enough to pay attention to the details.
When I first came to Idaho State I interviewed several people on the 40th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. Common everyday people told me everything they could remember. The president of ISU once served on a committee with Bobby Kennedy. A music professor played in the USMC band at the White House. One man joined the Peace Corps following the assassination. These people gave me their time, their memories, and essentially a part of them.
In my life there have been many events embedded in my memory. I was too young to remember Chernobyl or the Challenger disaster, but I remember 9/11 as clear as day. The deaths of Princess Dianna, Mother Teresa, John Kennedy, Jr., Ronald Reagan, Yasser Arafat, and now William Rehnquist are engraved in me. I was up all night when no one knew whether George Bush or Al Gore won the 2000 election. I was in Cleveland following the blackout of 2003. I watched the impeachment trial of the 42nd President of the United States. And most recently I woke to news of an associate justice unexpectedly resigning from the Supreme Court and went to bed knowing that the chief justice has succumbed to cancer.
I was disappointed in the private nature of both Rehnquist’s funeral and burial. CSPAN aired the Great Hall of the Supreme Court as people lined through to show their respect for the late “Chief.” CSPAN is known for showing the core boring happenings of the nation. In the hour I watched, there was at most five minutes worth my time. But in those five minutes I was amazed. The two people I least expected to see or find so remarkable were two ailing senators. Arlen Specter and Robert Byrd. This summer I’ve gained an appreciation of Specter. If you had asked me five years ago, I would never have guessed in a million years that I would get teary eyed at the sight of Specter. In he came, ailing, dying of cancer himself, and yet his grace proved a respect no words could describe. And following him was the also ailing and ever present Robert Byrd. Walking with two canes at a very slow pace, Byrd cried. If there is one man in Washington who truly understands, respects, and loves the institution, it’s Senator Byrd.
The death, the services, and those five minutes of CSPAN reminded me of something I somehow had forgotten. Someday, just as I, as a wide-eyed eighteen year old, went looking for the memories of one historical event, someone will come looking for my memories. Rehnquist’s death has reminded me that those memories are my duty to history.