The late Justice Antonin Scalia, nicknamed "Nino" by his colleagues on the Court, is a perfect example of someone I disliked from afar, but found to be one of the nicest, most charming people in person. His originalist position on the U.S. Constitution and conservative opinions were not my cup of tea. But I found that over coffee, wine, or a chance encounter at the ice cream shop, he was a true pleasure to be with.
Hayden and I built our first beach house in the Whalehead development of Corolla, NC. In the late 1980’s, at one of our first Thanksgiving weekend annual meetings of the property owner's association, I was surprised to recognize Justice Scalia as a fellow owner. Our paths crossed at the coffee and donut table, I introduced myself, (here’s where my daughters say, “of course you did.”) and we sat with Nino and his wife Maureen. Our association was led by some attorneys from Northern Virginia at the time and the meeting lasted at least 30 minutes longer than it should have due to their preening and legal pontificating for the benefit of our distinguished fellow homeowner. He would sigh and shake his head from time to time and I would have loved to have been privy to his thought bubble.
Wind the clock forward to 1999 and Justice Scalia is a guest at an exhibit opening at the Archives. Shockingly he doesn’t recognize me from the annual meeting (but I get over it). He and I and Brian Lamb, founder of C-SPAN engaged in conversation at one point in the evening and the Justice was on Lamb’s case about his recent appearance on Imus in the Morning. Don Imus was the longtime host of this staple of Washington DC drivetime radio. His high ratings attracted most of the political royalty of the day, as both listeners and guests. While quite controversial at times, Imus provided a nice distraction from the prison that is DC rush-hour traffic.
Lamb was defending himself to Justice Scalia on the grounds that if you are going to promote a public affairs or history book, you had no choice but to hawk it on Imus and hope for his endorsement. Brian had just authored a book with NARA’s own Richard Norton Smith entitled, Who’s Buried in Grant’s Tomb? A Tour of Presidential Gravesites.
Unconvinced, Justice Scalia smiled, shook his head, and intoned, “Oh Brian, déclassé.” A French put-down from the Italian Justice.
I did have the opportunity for a brief one-on-one with Nino that night and made him laugh. I told him, “Justice Scalia, you and I are the only attendees tonight that are members of a very exclusive club, with a very high cost of membership.”
Of course, he looked at me as though I had lost my mind. I looked around as though ensuring that no one was listening, then whispered, “The Whalehead Property Owner’s Association.” He laughed out loud and slapped me on the shoulder.
“I thought I recognized you, but couldn’t place from where,” he chuckled.
And then, my favorite Scalia story.
On our visits to Whalehead, we would occasionally see the Justice riding his bike (in the pre-9/11 America, with NO security I might add). One sunny Saturday morning in late June I walked to an ice cream and sundries shop at the Food Lion Shopping Center that always carried over-priced copies of the Washington Post. Justice Scalia (in shorts, tee shirt, and sunglasses) arrived on his bike at the same time. We said hello and walked into the shop together. We each picked up our copy of the Post and as I was paying for mine, I noticed a story and photo below the fold about a recently announced Supreme Court decision. The picture was of Antonin Scalia. I waited outside for the Justice and when he came out, I asked him "do you think that guy knows who he just sold that paper to?"
He smiled as he got on his bike and said, "no thank God, that's why I come here".