Alito hearings: Kabuki theater run amok
By Ellen Goodman
Now that it's all over but the accusations, let's take a minute to check the reviews. The performance, no, excuse me, the confirmation hearings of Judge Samuel Alito Jr. were most often described by political drama critics as a "charade" or a bit of kabuki theater.
Charade is, of course, a "pointless act," emphasis on the act. But charade is also a game played in pantomime, and these hearings were anything but silent. Someday we may label them "talkings" instead of "hearings." This time, the senators exhibited symptoms of logorrhea while the judge accomplished the fine art of speaking without actually saying anything.
Memo to Alito: Couldn't you at least have pantomimed Roe v. Wade? (Or Row v. Wade?)
As for kabuki? Yes, the drama was stylized. Yes, the senators prepped for their roles in traditional shades of umbrage and the judge appeared in his best pancake personality. But didn't kabuki originate in Japan with players of dubious reputation? Let's not go there.
After hours of monologues and a straight party vote, Alito's nomination moved out of committee — stage right — to the full Senate as easily as an arm slipping into a black robe. This led a number of the critics to suggest that maybe we shouldn't stage any more of these productions.
Joe Biden, who was panned for his lengthy improv riffs, wondered aloud if the whole Judiciary Committee show wasn't completely useless. Assorted law professors then harkened back to the pre-1925 days when the Senate based its judgment solely on the record, not the performance of a nominee.
As someone in a house seat, I share the frustration at the question-and-not-answer session. But I tend to agree with Harvard Law School's Richard Fallon. This is still "the one opportunity the Senate and American public have to watch someone who is a nominee to a high and important office." It's, um, a learning experience.
So what exactly did we learn on Alito's way to the Supreme Court?
Lesson One included the nature of the unflappable, decent, awkward and charm-impaired star. We learned that Alito still has a gripe against the 1960s and the privileged liberals at Princeton. (The privileged conservatives were OK.) We learned that he's one of those sober men who marry peppy women; he does taciturn, she does emotion. We learned that the same man who pumped up his conservative enthusiasms to get a job on the Reagan team tamped them down to get a job on the Bush bench.
Lesson Two was about the senators who no longer advise and consent but, rather, applaud or dissent. We learned that there's something in stylized kabuki makeup that gives most Americans an allergy attack. Did you hear Alabama's Jeff Sessions cast Alito as a "towering legal figure"? Or Ted Kennedy cast him as a neo-bigot tainted by the "repulsive anti-woman, anti-black, anti-disability, anti-gay" pronouncements of the Concerned Alumni of Princeton?
Didn't anyone staging this stuff notice how hard it is to portray someone as an extremist unless he has fangs under his KKK hood? And how easy it is to turn the average American off with words that don't match the images.
Lesson Three was about the courage of the administration's convictions. On the one hand were senators who are overtly, unabashedly, proudly against abortion. On the other hand, they promoted their candidate to the court by swearing he has an "open mind."
Alito's mom, not to mention the elated right-to-lifers marching on the National Mall last Monday, are sure they know their favorite son's views. But Arlen Specter, a pro-choice Republican, found a convoluted way to rationalize his vote for Alito. And pro-choice voters now get to wonder if they're better off with a pro-life Democrat — see Harry Reid — than a pro-choice Republican.
Lesson Four was about the audience, aka the public. Did you hear the uproar, the deafening demand from the balcony seats, forcing Alito to say what he thinks? No. Only 14 percent of the American public closely followed the hearings.
Maybe the average American is now content or cynical or hopeless enough to sit passively through the show. Maybe they agree with the senator from South Carolina, Lindsey Graham: "What did you expect President Bush to do when he won?" The Constitution goes to the victor?
It's not an accident that The Washington Post Web site posts its coverage of the confirmation process under the heading: Campaign for the Court. The saddest part of the drama is that the Supreme Court — the last institution to retain enormous public respect — is now just another stage for political wrangling.
Was this a sorry performance? Absolutely. But a bad show isn't any reason to close down the whole theater.