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Nominee leaves trail of sarcasm from 1980s

(Correction: Because of an editing error, Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi was misidentified as Senate majority leader in a story in Sunday's Nation pages about the writings of Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. The majority leader is Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee.)

SIMI VALLEY, Calif. -- John G. Roberts Jr. was not afraid to jab an elbow on policy, or to dispense opinion with a dash of sarcasm, when he was a young lawyer in the Reagan White House.

From his writings, President Bush's Supreme Court nominee seemed to be a stickler for legal nuance who used finely tuned political radar to steer officials away from entanglements on Capitol Hill, where Democrats then ruled.

Writings of Roberts that are stored at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library give a sense of a partisan eager to defend the president and to keep lawmakers and bureaucrats in line.

For someone who has become known in both parties for a self-deprecating wit, Roberts could be blunt on paper, even dismissive.

He served in the White House counsel's office from 1982 to 1986. The files show that his tasks included scrutinizing legislation, assessing the impact of court rulings, and reviewing speeches.

Roberts's political instincts took charge when he alerted the White House counsel, Fred Fielding, that an administration position in a racially sensitive Supreme Court case could rankle a political ally, a Mississippi congressman named Trent Lott. Lott is now the Senate majority leader.

In a case involving alleged discrimination and a church-run school, Roberts wrote in a memo dated Aug. 2, 1984, ''There should be little press interest . . . since we are on the side of the black parents at this point."

Government officials had assured Lott they would not prevent the Mississippi church from having its day in court. ''Just not the Supreme Court," Lott should be told if he objects, Roberts wrote.

In a memo from March 1984, Roberts warned an official at the White House's Office of Management and Budget to avoid references to a touchy issue during upcoming immigration testimony.

The office should not cite the denial of visas to the widow of the former Chilean president, Salvador Allende, and to the Nicaraguan interior minister, Tomas Borge, according to the memo. At the time, the Reagan administration was criticized for denying entry to leftist foreign officials on ideological grounds.

''Those denials were, and continue to be, particularly controversial and there is no need to mention them," Roberts wrote.

Many files are unavailable to the public. On Friday, Senator John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, urged the White House to release Roberts's documents ''in their entirety" from his time in the administrations of Reagan and President George H. W. Bush, Bush's father. Roberts was principal deputy solicitor general from 1989 to 1993.

For someone known as a likable Midwesterner, his writings sometimes display a tough wit.

In August 1983, he reviewed what he called a ''snide letter" to Reagan from a University of Georgia professor who alleged that a government agency was compiling a blacklist.

In a memo to Fielding, Roberts added parenthetically, ''Once you let the word out there's a blacklist, everybody wants to get on."

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