August 06, 1990 12:00 PM

He looks as flinty as a New Hampshire field. He drives a 1987 Volkswagen Golf. He still lives in the book-crammed house he grew up in, and his lawn needs mowing. He is a lifelong bachelor with, neighbors say, the untidy ways of someone married to his job. Yet there he was last week, a little-known man in a familiar ritual, standing next to an ebullient President and blinking awkwardly in an unaccustomed national spotlight. At the age of 50, quiet, ascetic David Souter, a distinguished but obscure federal judge, had just become George Bush’s first nominee to the Supreme Court and, as the potential balance tipper on a divided bench, the object of intense public scrutiny.

Souter had already passed muster with White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, a fellow New Hampshire native. (According to administration officials, the only other serious contender was Federal Judge Edith Jones, 41, of Houston.) GOP leaders hailed Souter as a “classic conservative” who would not “legislate from the bench”—a happy departure, they implied, from the man he was replacing, liberal champion William Brennan. And if the ideological distance between the two men seemed significant, the contrast in personality looked even greater; Brennan is an earthy, backslapping Irishman with a mischievous wit.

Souter, on the other hand, is a Yankee intellectual from a New England legal tradition that stretches back to Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Though he professes a love of reading, classical music (especially Bach) and hiking, even his leisure activities betray a seriousness of purpose. There was the time, an acquaintance recalls, when Souter learned that Justice Holmes had observed that reading Proust would make a person a better jurist—presumably by honing the ability to plow through vast amounts of abstruse prose. Souter packed a copy of Remembrance of Things Past for a hiking trip and proceeded to finish the entire work.

Souter’s nomination took Washington by surprise, both in its swiftness and in the unexpectedness of the President’s choice. That was apparently how the White House wanted things, with abortion heating up as a key issue of the fall election season. It was convenient that in his 12 years as a judge, most recently on the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, Souter had given little indication of how he might vote on such major constitutional questions as Roe v. Wade.

Nobody is likely to challenge Souter’s professional abilities. Republican Sen. Warren Rudman of New Hampshire, a mentor and old friend, called him “the single most brilliant intellectual mind I have ever met.” Neighbors in his hometown of Weare, N.H., were inclined to agree. They recalled that as a child Souter kept mainly to himself, preferring the company of his books and his chemistry set. A 1961 magna cum laude Harvard graduate, Souter won a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford, then entered Harvard Law School. Shortly after graduation he began a career in public service. Named New Hampshire Attorney General in 1976, he became a trial judge two years later, and was picked by Bush for the federal bench this year. By all accounts his rapid rise was the result of merit, not cronyism. “He is not involved with party politics at all,” says Gregory Smith, a former New Hampshire Attorney General.

In fact Souter appears to have spent most of his time cultivating his donnish image. His house in Weare belonged to his parents, and he has lived there since he was 11. His retiring manner notwithstanding, Souter can be stimulating and even charming in social settings. “He’s the sort of person who would probably not enjoy small talk,” says one former colleague. “But he most certainly enjoys people and substantive conversation.” There were reports that at one time Souter was engaged briefly to the daughter of a superior court justice. Souter lived with his mother in the house in Weare until 1982, when she moved to a nearby retirement community called Heritage Heights. He visits her at least once a week. When asked her reaction to her son’s nomination last week, Mrs. Souter, 82, told one reporter, “I think a teardrop fell.”

Some of Souter’s friends believe his relatively reclusive background might work to his advantage as a Supreme Court justice. “We are choosing these people to, in a way, set them apart from the emotional issues of the day,” says Gregory Smith. “I think he is an excellent choice for that.” But during his Senate confirmation hearings, scheduled to begin in September, Souter is sure to be caught up in the tumultuous debate over such divisive issues as abortion, affirmative action and freedom of speech. For such an intensely private man, the scrutiny may prove as unsettling as it should be exhilarating.

Bill Hewitt, Dirk Mathison in Boston, Gayle Verner in Weare and bureau reports

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