The awkward campaign to convince us Sam Alito is funny.
Friday, Jan. 6, 2006
Ha Ha Ha: One of the 2005 best sellers in my stocking this Christmas was Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, which explains why first impressions are often more accurate than more considered second thoughts. The genius of Blink is that you don't even have to read it to get the point: Its whole time-saving premise is that you can and should judge a book by its cover.
This insight will come in handy during Judge Alito's confirmation hearings next week. Most of us don't have the time or the desire to watch the whole show on C-SPAN. The Roberts hearings were the first confirmation showdown in a decade, and supporters and opponents alike knew he would deliver a boffo performance. The hearings that never happened over Harriet Miers would have been a daytime soap for the ages. Even witnesses on her behalf, like her creepy ex-boyfriend Nathan Hecht, had huge ratings potential.
By contrast, the Alito hearings inspire more dread than anticipation. Like Roberts, Judge Alito will avoid answering the committee's questions, but probably not as deftly. The tone of questions from critics on the committee will be harsher, while the tone of his defenders will be more defensive.
But more than anything, I feel the way those kids on the Little League team Alito coached must have felt knowing that he would show up in full uniform for every game: Whatever else happens, I just know he will do something that makes me cringe.
John Roberts may have gone to Harvard, dreamed in Latin, written memos in French, and worn a dress now and then, but he came across as a modern Gatsby, a golden boy comfortable in his own skin. Alito may be a great father, charming boss, and baseball lover, but he comes across as an ambitious nerd who's comfortable in his kid's Little League uniform.
That's hardly a disqualifying factor. Golden boys run for office. The Supreme Court is supposed to be a bunch of ambitious nerds in funny outfits.
But from the beginning, the Alito campaign has tried to convince America that he is something else. "If Alito was a hero among the nerds, the cool kids liked him too," the Washington Post wrote in its first Alito profile. This week, Progress for America has sent 29 of Alito's friends and former clerks on an 18-state tour to persuade the heartland that he's a regular guy.
While grass-roots campaigns from Washington are always phony, this one seems especially awkward. The group's travel diaries are full of cringe-worthy observations, such as this one about North Dakota: "Did you know? Milk is the official state beverage." Take a quick look at the photos and trust your first impression: Alito's friends are nerds, too.
Laughing Points: The strangest aspect of the campaign to humanize Alito is the orchestrated attempt to hype his sense of humor. The front-page headline in yesterday's Washington Times proclaimed, "Alito prized wit, not politics." According to the Times, "His sense of humor is quiet and rich."
Bruce Reed, who was President Clinton's domestic policy adviser, is CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council and co-author with Rahm Emanuel of The Plan: Big Ideas for Change in America.E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his disclosure here.
Photograph of Barack Obama by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.