In the wake of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s sudden death, discussions of his character and life’s work have been in the limelight. Scalia and his legacy is controversial, but most seem to agree, political views aside, that Scalia had an engaging and charismatic persona that changed the way the Supreme Court handled the Constitution. Interestingly enough, the Macalester community of 1986 experienced Scalia’s energetic persona before he began his career as what most know him for today, a Supreme Court Justice.
The Dewitt Wallace Conference on the Liberal Arts signaled a revival for Macalester. After experiencing times of financial trouble, this conference was designed to inaugurate a new era of academic excellence and reestablish Macalester as a leading institution in the liberal arts. Notable scholars and government officials, including Scalia, gathered at Macalester to discuss “The Constitution, Freedom of Expression, and the Liberal Arts” that September. Professor Emeritus James Brewer Stewart, one of the conference’s organizers, noted that the event was meant to engage the community on the meaning of the freedom of expression. All the speakers met together beforehand to synthesize their ideas, but they also gave individual lectures and individually taught smaller classes.
In hindsight, some may see Scalia as the most notable invitee, but at the time, most of the other speakers already had extremely well-established careers in comparison to Scalia. For example, Chief Justice Warren Burger opened the two-day conference to an audience of 2,000 with a “‘civics lesson’ on the Constitution and its origins.” Other dignitaries included John Edgar Wideman, a distinguished creative writer who “spoke of the role of social symbols in determining perceptions of reality,” and Robert J. Lifton, a social psychologist known for his research on Nazi ideology.
Why, then, was this conference critical for Scalia? Frankly, it was all due to the timing in his career. At the time, Scalia was waiting to receive the results of his Supreme Court Justice nomination. In this time of limbo, it is nearly unheard of for a candidate to make any sort of public statement, but that’s exactly what Scalia did. It was a risky line, but those who knew him agree it was a very “Scalia” thing to do. “[Scalia] was very open to talking about how felt about his confirmation process” during the conference, noted Stewart. However, “he wouldn’t tell you what his constitutional ideas were. You never knew how he would be as a jurist.”
An article about the conference in the 1986 edition of Macalester Today indicated that “with his nomination to the Supreme Court pending, Antonin Scalia spoke cautiously but described himself as a supporter of pure forms of freedom of expression.” Scalia even thought about withdrawing from the conference, “but Chief Justice Burger urged him not to do the ‘mean but intelligent thing.’ Scalia said, ‘So here I am before you at a time when any sensible person would be hiding in a cave.’”
The speech Scalia gave at the conference is printed in a publication born from the conference titled “The Constitution, the Law, and the Freedom of Expression 1787-1987.” His address, “A House with Many Mansions,” conveys “some appreciation of the difficulties that judges confront in applying the First Amendment to the liberal arts or, for that matter, to any aspect of human endeavor.”
Scalia, perhaps wisely, kept his political views to himself during his time in the limelight, but according to Stewart, he definitely let his true character shine through.
“I saw him walking up Grand [Avenue], smoking his pipe, looking very pleased with himself,” Stewart recalled, chuckling. “He was someone who was very comfortable in his own skin.”
Stewart added that he was a person who everyone was glad to have around. Even if you didn’t agree with his politics, Stewart described him as an engaging and compelling figure with a great sense of humor, but also a bit edgy. “He invited you to his game, but let you know that it was still his game.”