Dorris vs. Roberts

John McCaslin
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Posted: Dec 05, 2007 10:59 AM
Dorris vs. Roberts

Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. is not worthy of an honorary law degree from the University of Illinois — not yet at least.

"The primary reason is that it was premature. You don't give honorary degrees to positions; you give them to people," college board of trustees member David Dorris, a lawyer, told Inside the Beltway in a telephone interview yesterday from Illinois.

"I have nothing against Roberts. He may wind up being one of the most wonderful chief justices ever in the United States ... but at the time [of the honorary-degree proposal] he had done nothing except to be appointed."

The Champaign News-Gazette first reported the irony: He wins U.S. Senate approval to oversee the nation's highest court, yet the University of Illinois' board of trustees wasn't as impressed with the man who grew up in neighboring Indiana and worked in a steel mill to help pay for his college education.

The saga began in 2006, when the university's Senate, made up of students and faculty, approved awarding the honorary degree to Chief Justice Roberts, and the chancellor and president forwarded the recommendation to the trustees, who have final say. That's when the roadblock went up.

"It's important to have a unanimous vote on honorary-degree recipients," explained university President B. Joseph White. "When I get a sense we don't have a consensus on the board, then we pull it. We don't proceed."

The newspaper, which obtained documents on the nomination process through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, said it was university professor Robert Fossum, a longtime Democrat, who first submitted Chief Justice Roberts' name for the honor.

"I'm disappointed. I'm disappointed for the law school, and I'm disappointed for the university. I think he would have been a good commencement speaker," Mr. Fossum said.

Mr. Dorris had asked the board to consider how it would look if the state's flagship university presented the chief justice with an honorary degree after Illinois' pair of Democratic senators — Barack Obama and Richard J. Durbin — voted against his Supreme Court nomination. Chief Justice Roberts won Senate approval by a 78-22 vote.

Chief Justice Roberts, or so it was intended, was to receive the degree in May 2008. Now, degrees will go instead to Jay Gates, director of the Phillips Collection here in Washington; landscape architect Peter Walker; and University of South Carolina President Andrew Sorensen.

Odds & ends

• Congress realized yesterday that Thanksgiving is over and reconvened in hopes of accomplishing in two weeks — before its next holiday — what it's been unable to do all year. Good luck to us all.

• Carl Bernstein, the former Washington Post reporter of Watergate fame, has surfaced again, hired this time by CNN to be a 2008 election analyst. This on the heels of his recent book, "A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton."

• Fairfax County public school students are reminded to wear a different shoe on each foot on Friday, a symbolic gesture of accepting and valuing other people and their differences.

• President Bush and first lady Laura Bush will participate in the lighting of the National Christmas Tree at 5 p.m. tomorrow on the Ellipse.

'Wild Rose'

There's no better place to learn about Confederate spy Rose O'Neal Greenhow, or "Wild Rose" as she was fondly known, than through the Special Collections Library at Duke University.

Born in Maryland's Montgomery County in 1817, O'Neal was a leading Washington hostess, a legendary beauty, a passionate secessionist, and one of the most renowned spies in the Civil War.

"Among her accomplishments was the secret message she sent to Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard, which ultimately caused him to win the battle of Bull Run. She spied so successfully for the Confederacy that Jefferson Davis credited her with winning the battle of Manassas," the library said.

She eventually was imprisoned, first in her own home, then in the Old Capital Prison; however, she continued getting messages to the Confederacy by means of cryptic notes, one that "traveled in unlikely places such as the inside of a woman's bun of hair."

Finally exiled to the Confederate states (she was received warmly by President Jefferson Davis), her "next mission was to tour Britain and France as a propagandist for the Confederate cause. Two months after her arrival in London, her memoirs were published and enjoyed wide sales throughout the British isles. In Europe, Greenhow found a strong sympathy for the South, especially among the ruling classes ...

"In 1864, after a year abroad, she boarded the Condor, a British blockade-runner, which was to take her home. Just before reaching her destination, the vessel ran aground at the mouth of the Cape Fear River near Wilmington, N.C. In order to avoid the Union gunboat that pursued her ship, Rose fled in a rowboat, but never made it to shore. Her little boat capsized, and she was dragged down by the weight of the gold she received in royalties for her book."

In October 1864, O'Neal was buried with full military honors in Wilmington, her coffin wrapped in a Confederate flag and carried by Confederate troops.

We recall this little-known chapter of American history because the National Archives at noon today in the Jefferson Room will host a lecture on O'Neal by biographer Ann Blackman, who will tell about "an almost forgotten woman who made more history that anyone knew."

Archives says "no woman in the North or South rivaled" O'Neal, who "changed the course of the Civil War."