WILLIAM HUBBS REHNQUIST was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, October 1, 1924. He grew up in the suburb of Shorewood, the son of a paper salesman. Rehnquist's strongly conservative views can be traced directly to his childhood. According to a Washington Post report, the political heroes in the Rehnquist household were "Republican standard bearers such as Alf Landon, Wendell Willkie and Herbert Hoover." When Rehnquist was asked (during the Democratic administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt) by his elementary teacher about his career plans, he replied, "I'm going to change the government."
He served in the Army Air Corps during World War II as a weather observer in North Africa. Following the war, he attended college on the GI Bill, earning both a B.A. (Phi Beta Kappa) and M.A. in political science at Stanford University in 1948. Rehnquist received a second M.A., in government, from Harvard two years later. He then entered Stanford Law School, where he graduated first in his class in 1952. (The student who ranked third was Sandra Day, who later joined him on the Supreme Court.) Rehnquist was described by one of his instructors as "the outstanding student of his law school generation." He also had the reputation among his classmates as a formidable advocate of the conservative point of view on political issues.
Rehnquist met Justice Robert Jackson when he came to Stanford to dedicate the new law school building in the summer of 1951. An interview for a possible clerkship with him was arranged by a professor who was a former Jackson clerk. Despite Rehnquist's feeling, following the interview, that Jackson "had written me off as a total loss," he was offered the highly coveted position. Jackson, a moderate, does not appear to have had any influence on Rehnquist's already well-developed political or judicial philosophies. Indeed, in his book on the Supreme Court, Rehnquist speaks well of Jackson, but no such influence is noted. Justice Felix Frankfurter seems to have made more of an impression; Rehnquist describes Frankfurter as a "magnetic" personality to whom he was "tremendously drawn ... by his willingness to discuss and argue while asking no quarter by reason of his position or eminence."
What Rehnquist considered to be the too-liberal views of his fellow law clerks certainly made a strong impression on him, and in 1957 he published an article in U.S. News and World Report criticizing their "extreme solicitude for the claims of Communists and other criminal defendants, expansion of federal power at the expense of State power, great sympathy toward any government regulation of business--in short, the political philosophy now espoused by the Court under Chief Justice [Earl] Warren." Rehnquist contended that this political bias on the part of the clerks might have some influence over which cases the Court chose to decide, but not over the way any justice voted in a particular case.
In 1953, following his clerkship, he married Natalie ("Nan") Cornell, whom he had met at Stanford, and the couple had a son and two daughters. Rehnquist went to work for a law firm in Phoenix, choosing that city for its climate, both meteorological and political. He followed advice that Justice Frankfurter had given him "that conservatives as well as liberals ought to get active on the political scene." He became a Republican party official and an outspoken opponent of liberal legislative initiatives such as busing to achieve school integration. While campaigning for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964, Rehnquist became friendly with Richard Kleindienst, another Phoenix attorney. Kleindienst was appointed deputy attorney general in Richard Nixon's administration and arranged for Rehnquist to become assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel.
One of Rehnquist's principal functions in this job was to screen, along with Kleindienst and Attorney General John Mitchell, candidates for potential Supreme Court positions. When attempts to find a suitable candidate to replace retiring justice John Marshall Harlan had reached an impasse, Mitchell informed Rehnquist that they had settled on someone--Rehnquist himself. Despite his relative youth (he was forty-seven), inexperience, and political views that diverged from those of many senators, his nomination was confirmed, 68-26, December 10, 1971. He joined the Court on January 7, 1972, the same day as Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr.
Rehnquist summarized his vision of the nation's constitutional structure in a speech at the University of Texas a few years later:
It is almost impossible ... to conclude that the [Founders] intended the Constitution itself to suggest answers to the manifold problems that they knew would confront succeeding generations. The Constitution that they drafted was intended to endure indefinitely, but the reason for this well-founded hope was the general language by which national authority was granted to Congress and the Presidency. These two branches were to furnish the motive power within the federal system, which was in turn to coexist with the state governments; the elements of government having a popular constituency were looked to for the solution of the numerous and varied problems that the future would bring.