WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court is a monument to architectural grace. Surrounded on all sides by massive marble slabs, the weight of history hangs heavy in the air around you. Even whispers seem to echo. Upon entering the building, a contemplative silence descends over many visitors.
In short, it isn’t quite the kind of place you expect to stumble on a euphoric gathering of adults singing and laughing their hearts out like a playground full of school kids. Nevertheless, that is what I found when I found myself invited to the Court’s annual Christmas party last week.
After clearing security, I walked into a large hall with a military string band playing on one end and the courtroom in which the Supreme Court makes the ever increasing power of the judicial branch known on the other. In between these magnificent bookends were throngs of court employees, with friends and loved ones, gathered around a massive Christmas tree, picking at gourmet food stacked along buffet tables. Men and women in bow ties and red vests swooped in and out of the crowd, grabbing plates and glasses, almost uncannily, as soon as they were emptied.
I stood in the middle of the swirling noise wondering how a small town New Hampshire boy would assert himself in this atmosphere. In my mind’s eye my gaping mouth was a perfect mimic of Jimmy Stewart’s Mr. Smith going to Washington: The country bumpkin had arrived.
Then: A chiming ring. Perhaps the angel Clarence giving one more go at earning those wings? No, no. It was the Chief Justice, smiling broadly and shaking a brass bell. The huge crowd was quickly silenced by this slightly hunched gentleman. After the prerequisite best wishes, he announced caroling would begin in five minutes in the East Room, turned and walked away.
So I strolled over, as much to escape the hubbub as anything else. I stood shifting from one foot to the other, politely nodding at some of the other 30 or so people who had followed their curiosity to the room. Then in came the Chief, walking slowly but deliberately. He strode up alongside the piano, pulled out a conducting wand and instructed everyone to pick up an official Supreme Court caroling book. The piano player tested a couple keys, and then the two were off, Rehnquist energetically swinging the wand, singing at the top of his lungs.
Now, I have never fancied myself a caroler, but when the Chief waved that wand at me, I sang loud and proud.
At the end of the first song, “Jingle Bells,” he smiled and said, “That was good, but we’re not quite there yet. You can do better.” As if in response, during the next song I heard, nay felt, one man’s voice booming above all others. When I turned to catch a glimpse of this mighty wind, I found the indomitable Justice Antonin Scalia.
Scalia introduced a new energy to the proceedings. When the Chief suggested we only sing three of the six verses that make up, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” Scalia heckled, “Sing the whole thing!” And soon after the Chief brought up his teenage granddaughters to lead us in “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” he handed the baton off to Scalia, who launched into the second half of the carol book with gusto.
At the outset of “Good King Wenceslas,” Scalia demanded a volunteer come forward to play the part of the page. No slouch, he cast himself as the Good King, and played it to the hilt. The performance was so forceful and convincing, when Scalia delivered the lines, “Mark my footsteps, my good page, tread thou in them boldly; Thou shalt find the winter’s rage freeze thy blood less coldly,” it was nothing short of regal.
Scalia’s wicked sense of humor remained intact as well. As carolers filed out after the festivities were over, he mock warned, “Be sure to put your carol books back on the table where you found them. I know you want to take them home, but you can’t.” A staff member pointed out that the books were complimentary, and that they were printed every year. “In that case, everyone take two,” Scalia said, before smiling and marching out of the room like a team’s star football player taking the field.
Still, it was something less tangible that made the afternoon truly special. These men, powerful though they may be, were humbling themselves before the holiday. And it wasn’t some bland celebration of a politically correct, all inclusive, individualized holiday. It was a celebration of Christmas. That is, for those who didn’t catch the announcement over the mall PA system, a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, steward and savior of Christendom. Songs from, “What Child is This” to “Away in a Manger” were embraced, not sidestepped.
Since arriving in Washington, D.C. nearly six months ago, I have found myself disappointed with our political process at every turn. But what I saw at the Supreme Court last week was unequivocal, genuine, and touching. For the first time I saw humanity among the powerful. For the first time I wasn’t disappointed by the rote coarseness of the empty platitudes of “everything to everyone” political elite.
So I sang with great men leading me. I forgot my quibbles with the Court’s decisions of late. I became one with a group of strangers. I reveled in my good fortune to have been born in the greatest country the world has ever seen. I thought about how this scene could only happen in America and I was grateful.
Yes, Virginia, there is a caroling Chief Justice. Merry Christmas.