A frail but determined William H. Rehnquist fulfilled a promise by swearing in President Bush on Thursday in the chief justice’s first public appearance since being diagnosed with cancer three months ago.
Rehnquist was pale and walked stiffly with a cane. He administered the oath in a clear, raspy voice. It was the fifth and very likely last time he will swear in a president.
Although chief justices traditionally handle those duties, Rehnquist’s participation had been in doubt until the last minute because of his battle with thyroid cancer.
He has missed Supreme Court sessions for the past three months while receiving chemotherapy and radiation. During that time, he mainly has worked from his home in suburban Virginia. But he announced more than a month ago that he planned to administer the oath and he made good on that.
The 80-year-old Rehnquist gripped a cane in his right hand as he walked slowly without assistance down to the Capitol stage where Bush took the oath. Rehnquist shook the president’s hand, then returned to his seat.
“Overall I think the best word is encouraging,” said Dr. Kenneth Burman, a thyroid specialist at Washington Hospital Center who is not involved in Rehnquist’s treatment. “He looked quite good in terms of ability to walk, get to the podium.”
Burman said it was impossible to tell, however, how serious Rehnquist’s cancer is.
A scarf hid a tracheotomy tube that was inserted in October to help Rehnquist breathe. He wore a black beret, which he took off during the short swearing-in.
He also wore his trademark black robe, with four gold stripes on each sleeve.
The cold weather had not been expected to hold back Rehnquist, a Wisconsin native known to require court staff to work in snowstorms.
Rehnquist has been chief justice since 1986. If he had been unable to participate it would have been only the ninth time in history the chief justice did not administer the oath.