Chief Justice Rehnquist's drug habit.

Media criticism.
Sept. 9 2005 5:28 PM

Rehnquist's Drug Habit

The man in full.

The very model of a chief justice 
Click image to expand.
The very model of a chief justice

As we usher the 16th chief justice of the United States to his celestial reward, let us remember him in full. He labored successfully to return power to the states, treated colleagues with warmth and respect, was said to be a gregarious boss, and, inspired by a judge's costume he saw in the performance of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, added four silly gold stripes to each sleeve of his judicial robe.

And for the nine years between 1972 and the end of 1981, William Rehnquist consumed great quantities of the potent sedative-hypnotic Placidyl. So great was Rehnquist's Placidyl habit, dependency, or addiction—depending on how you regard long-term drug use—that by the last quarter of 1981 he began slurring his speech in public, became tongue-tied while pronouncing long words, and sometimes had trouble finishing his thoughts.

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The parade of news stories and TV segments that followed Rehnquist's death made little mention of his affair with Placidyl. New York TimesSupreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse offered more than any reporter, but still just 57 words near the end of a 6,100-word story. The Boston Globemade a two-sentence mention. The Washington Poststory about his death ignored this chapter of his life, as did the Los Angeles Times.

(Slate can't brag on this score. David Plotz's 1998 "Assessment" and last week's Rehnquist retrospective-obituaries by Dahlia Lithwick, Walter Dellinger, and Richard W. Garnett avoided the topic.)

Obviously the lede of the chief's obituary should not have read, "William H. Rehnquist, a man with a jones for Placidyl, died yesterday. He also served as chief justice of the United States for 19 years." But the reluctance to explore this part of Rehnquist's life at any length illustrates a general rule of journalism: Most obituarists prefer the airbrush to the sharpened pen when it comes to the famous and powerful. In Rehnquist's case, reporters can't make the "I was on deadline" excuse. The chief justice gave generous advance notice of his impending death for months, and novella-length pieces like the Greenhouse obit were hardly banged out over Labor Day weekend.

Recounting Rehnquist's Placidyl story isn't just a bit of journalistic blood sport at the expense of a dead man. His unorthodox drug consumption first made headlines in 1982, when the Washington Post (owned by the same corporation that owns Slate) broke the story, when he entered the hospital to get off the stuff. The Placidyl episode was also news in 1986, when President Ronald Reagan upgraded Rehnquist from associate justice by nominating him as chief. A confidential report on Rehnquist's medical history prepared for the Senate Judiciary Committee, which contained more details about his habit, was leaked to the press.

The Rehnquist story deserves a third airing today if only to illustrate the ugly double standards that excuse extreme drug use by the powerful, especially if their connection is a prescribing doctor, and condemns to draconian prison terms the guy who purchases his drugs on the street. Reviewing Rehnquist's tale one more time also demonstrates the reluctance of the Senate—and some members of the press—to grade the mental competency of judges and judicial nominees.

The 1986 medical report on Rehnquist described him as seriously "dependent" on Placidyl from 1977 to 1981. He often consumed three month's worth of the drug in one month before requesting more from Dr. Freeman H. Cary, the attending physician to Congress, who prescribed it. Anonymous sources told the Post that Cary first prescribed Placidyl to Rehnquist in 1971 to help him sleep through his severe back pains, but "Cary reportedly told the FBI that Rehnquist had taken it before."

What is Placidyl? Some news clips, such as the Boston Globe obit, call it a painkiller. Yes, it's a painkiller—in the sense that a fistfull of Ambien is a pain killer. You take it and it knocks you out. Placidyl is a "sedative-hypnotic" developed to help insomniacs sleep. See this period advertisement for Placidyl and this one, too. The abuse potential of Placidyl has always been rated as high: An associate professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University told the Post in 1986 that it was "a strong drug I would use only under very exceptional circumstance" and that he wouldn't give it to people for more than one or two weeks. He added that it shouldn't be given to patients who suffered both pain and insomnia.

The standard dose for adults is 500 milligrams, taken at bedtime. Rehnquist initially took 200 milligrams daily but by 1981 was taking 1,500 milligrams a day. Increasing dosage indicates drug dependency, the Johns Hopkins professor explained. For more about Placidyl's potency, see this "product information" from 1971 distributed by the Abbott Laboratories, the manufacturer in the early 1970s, and reprinted in Licit and Illicit Drugs by Edward M. Brecher.

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