WASHINGTON—He walked with a cane and spoke in a voice that was weaker and raspier than normal, but Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist nonetheless looked vigorous Thursday as he issued the oath of office to President Bush.
While some television observers noted how weak and frail the chief justice appeared, in truth the 80-year-old didn't look much different than he usually does—and seemed much healthier than many had speculated.
Ailing from an aggressive form of thyroid cancer, the chief justice has been absent from the bench since late October, fueling speculation that he might retire soon—or die—and give the president his first occasion to fill a high-court seat.
Court officials said Rehnquist had a tracheotomy in October and has been undergoing radiation and chemotherapy treatments. A newspaper report last week described him as looking "very, very ill" while being pushed in a wheelchair through the basement corridors of the Capitol.
But on Thursday, Rehnquist, who appeared for the fifth presidential inauguration of his 19 years as chief justice, hardly fit that description. He walked on his own, aided by the cane, down the Capitol steps to the platform where the president was sworn in.
His skin looked pale and his neck was wrapped in scarves to protect his throat, but his spirit seemed determined. There was a hissing sound when he spoke, presumably from the tracheotomy, which still assists with his breathing. His somewhat limping gait wasn't markedly different from his usual step, which has been affected for years by back problems.
Rehnquist read the oath, then went back inside the Capitol. Afterward, at the inaugural luncheon, Bush said he was moved that Rehnquist's illness didn't force him to miss the inauguration.
"I want you to know how touched I was that chief justice came to administer the oath," Bush said.
If illness doesn't force his retirement, Rehnquist—who barely missed a day of work before his cancer—probably won't leave the bench before June 30, the official end of the current court term.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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