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By the time Eleanor “Eldie” Acheson figured out there was trouble, it was already too late. None of the typical warning signs had flashed. FBI background checks of the nominee had turned up nothing extraordinary. The Senate debate the night before had been perfunctory, and key GOP senators had promised support.

But within a few hours on a gray day in October 1999, Acheson, a longtime judge vetter for President Bill Clinton, saw how quickly things could go awry. Spurred by the election-cycle machinations of Missouri senator John Ashcroft and a last-minute change of heart by Senator Christopher “Kit” Bond, the Republican caucus quietly agreed to oppose Ronnie White’s nomination to the federal bench.

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