The Has-been

Concerned Alumni of Reagan

Sam Alito goes from one group of grumpy old men to another.

Friday, Jan. 13, 2006

Friday, Jan. 13, 2006

CAP and Gown: For the past few days, Sam Alito must have been kicking himself for ever adding the Concerned Alumni of Princeton to his job application. He never meant to hang out with a bunch of conservative, grumpy old men at college. He just wanted to do that on the Supreme Court.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has wrapped up its investigation of Princeton, unless Sen. Lindsey Graham carries out his threat to get to the bottom of which eating clubs Woodrow Wilson, Donald Rumsfeld, and Bill Frist joined in college. What should concern the Senate most about Alito’s Princeton’s ties is not that he was a card-carrying member of CAP, but that in the mid-1980s he thought it would help to claim to be one.

Senate Democrats are right to doubt Alito’s professed shock to learn that CAP harbored ill will toward women and minorities. Whether or not he was ever a “concerned alum,” Alito has long been an active, interested one. His name appears regularly in the alumni notes for the Class of ‘72. He goes back for reunions every five years and drives up for the Harvard game. He chaired an alumni careers committee even after he became a federal judge.

Moreover, CAP wasn’t a secret society—it wore its reactionary nostalgia on its sleeve. No Princeton student or alumnus could get through the 1970s without receiving the group’s mailings or reading members’ angry letters in the Alumni Weekly.

This Old Man: What set CAP apart wasn’t simply its conservatism—compared to other Ivies, Princeton was never a hotbed of liberalism—but that it was conservatism for crotchety old men.

By the time I came to Princeton in the late ‘70s, no one under the age of 50 had any interest in the issues CAP droned on about, like the folly of co-education. For students, liberal and conservative alike, the biggest complaint was that the place wasn’t co-educated enough. We envied other colleges that had moved much more quickly toward the normalcy of having equal numbers of men and women on campus.

As a nerd who steered clear of eating clubs—the book on me as well—Alito had even less connection to CAP’s old-world order. After traditionalists lost the battle over co-education, they fought their last stand at the clubs. Alito preferred the company of ambitious pre-laws at the Woodrow Wilson School.

Nor was CAP a rallying point for conservative young Turks. It was more like a political retirement home for alums who had hoped that after all the money they’d given and P-rades they’d walked, Old Nassau could be their Alamo against the ‘60s.

One of CAP’s founders, William Rusher, said as much in an online Q&A this week with the magazine he used to publish, National Review. Asked if he was still “concerned about Princeton,” Rusher said:

I will always remember fondly the Princeton I knew, and regret what has happened to it. My old NR colleague Jim Burnham, who was a graduate of the Class of 1933 (or about then), once told me that Princeton had become “just another liberal joint,” and I’m afraid it’s true.

CAP’s real complaint was with growing old. Rusher might as well be Burt Lancaster in the movie Atlantic City, standing on the boardwalk and saying, “You should have seen the Atlantic Ocean in those days.”

Prospect Street: So, what was Sam Alito thinking, at the tender age of 35, when he listed a fogeys-only group like CAP as his most impressive conservative affiliation?

It’s possible that Alito’s conservatism was prematurely gray. Michael Kinsley once described Al Gore in his 30s as an old person’s idea of a young person. At Princeton, the serious, no-nonsense Alito must have seemed like a young person’s idea of an old person. Alito has admitted that he picked up his conservatism from reading William Buckley and National Review. When Alito warmed to National Review in the mid-1960s, intellectual conservatism was an unabashedly elitist phenomenon. In those days, many of Buckley’s conservative rants were often simply wittier, more urbane expressions of the CAP lament, aimed at Yale’s decline rather than Princeton’s.

The other major influence on Alito’s early political thought, his father, was another diehard traditionalist. He didn’t allow women who worked for him to wear pants to work, a stand that CAP members would have cheered from their rockers.

But 20 years ago, Sam Alito wasn’t wrinkled enough to think that way. More likely, CAP was just the handiest conservative résumé-padding he could find on short notice. As he acknowledged in his testimony, “What I was trying to outline were the things that were relevant to obtaining a political position.”

Alito insisted that if he had known what the group stood for, “I would never be a member of an organization that took those views.” But on issues from affirmative action to Bob Jones University, the Reagan administration took stands all the time that sounded like CAP—and Alito was eager to be a member.

When Alito took stock of the Reagan Justice Department, he must have drawn the same conclusion as his bright, ambitious rival, John Roberts: You’d never get in trouble with Ed Meese for standing too far to the right.

Monday, Jan. 9, 2006

Monday, Jan. 9, 2006

Dying Up There: The hearings haven’t even begun, and Judge Alito already has us cringing. In an exhaustive, uncritical history of his geeky childhood, Sunday’s Washington Postprovided the latest installment in the campaign to prove that Sam Alito is a very funny fellow.

The Post says high school “classmates still speak of his unusual blend of braininess, modesty, and quietly hilarious wit.” In college, “friends knew Alito as a confirmed anti-snob, flashing a dry, acerbic wit.”

But the 3,400-word piece offers only one anecdote in support of these claims, and it suggests just the opposite—that “quietly hilarious” and “dry” are euphemisms for not particularly funny. The Post says that Alito was elected student body president at Hamilton-East Steinert High School “with an uncharacteristically wacky campaign using posters of women having their hair colored and the slogan ‘I’ll just DYE if Sam isn’t elected. Alito for President.’ “

Nearly 40 years later, you can still hear the groans. The guy could write for Jackie Mason: “Sure, I support a woman’s right to choose—any hair color she wants!”

John Roberts sought glory in high school by writing editorials dismissing women as “giggling and blushing” blondes. Sam Alito chummed for votes with weird, dumb jokes at their expense. The Post shows a photo of Student Body President Alito, gavel in hand, smiling between two glaring women who served with him. In black-and-white, their hair color isn’t clear, but one thing’s for sure: They’re not giggling.

Order in the Court: Then again, Sam Alito didn’t have time to be the class clown. Like Roberts, he preferred the order of Latin declensions to the chaos of the ‘60s. “He liked structure and rigidity,” his middle-school Latin teacher told the Post. “Kind of inscrutable at times,” added his English teacher. “Oh my goodness, he never did anything rebellious at all!” said his mother.

We are told that when Alito wasn’t being quietly less than hilarious, he burned with quiet indignation at the injustices of his era. The Post says that he “objected even as a young man to the Warren Court’s rulings.” His hair color never changed, but he was dying inside.

The Warren Court took school prayer away from him after sixth grade. In middle school, he suffered under the burden of “one man, one vote.” At Princeton, he began to identify with the rights of minorities after Princeton students voted to postpone classes to protest the war. A classmate recalls Alito thinking that “a majority vote to suspend classes would be unfair to a minority who wanted to study.” That’s what the Founders meant: One man, one library.

Justice Roberts met his wife at Dewey Beach, one of Washington’s favorite summer playgrounds. Alito met his wife in the library. Unlike her husband, Martha Alito comes across as a real live wire who actually is funny. He gives her plenty of material. In today’s installment, Martha tells the Post that on one summer vacation, Alito began teaching himself Greek so that he could read the great philosophers in the “original text.”

The Christian right is worried sick about all the Supreme Court has done to undermine family values. Yet the man they’re counting on to save the family uses his own family vacations to read Socrates and nerd out like Michael Dukakis.

Don’t Tread on Me: Fortunately, Alito has loyal friends to keep him grounded. What do Alito’s old pals do when they’re not barnstorming the country to convince us he’s funny? Naturally, they come home and dress up in funny costumes.

Alert reader David Nelson passes along a charming story about William Agress, the high-school debate partner who likes to recall how funny it was that he chose Alito. Last week, conservatives sent Agress to stump for Alito in North Dakota and Montana. This weekend, he was back in New Jersey, doing what he has done every January for a quarter century: donning a Revolutionary War uniform and a sword to re-enact the run-up to the Second Battle of Trenton.

The Trenton Timesreports that Agress and 50 others marched down Route 206, set off a Revolutionary War cannon, then retired to Trenton for “apple cider, tricorn-shaped pastries, and Betsy Ross flag cookies.” “I think it’s wonderful that they do this,” one spectator told the Times. “It’s too easy for people to forget what made this country happen.”

Friday, Jan. 6, 2006

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.”

Although the reporter talked to dozens of Alito friends and associates, he couldn’t come up with much evidence of the judge’s wit, apart from an oft-reported prank in which Alito placed two pink flamingos in front of his office door to shame another justice who had installed a pair of fake stone lions. Instead, the article quotes the judge’s dissents in favor of letting police strip-search a 10-year-old girl and requiring married women to notify their spouses before getting an abortion—which brings new meaning to “Take my wife, please!”

According to a former clerk, Alito once “jokingly described his chambers as the most romantic.” The good news is, he was referring to the clerk’s relationship with another clerk, not telling the kind of pubic-hair-on-a-Coke-can “joke” that Anita Hill cited in Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings. The bad news: Alito may have been joking, but it wasn’t particularly funny.

The article reveals one new anecdote: A former clerk remembers Alito telling “self-deprecating personal stories,” including one about how, as a boy, he always gave his mother perfume and his father shaving cream for Christmas. One year, Alito forgot and had to climb out his bedroom window to buy them at the last minute. Alas, the clerk spoils the story with a sappy talking point: “The reason we remember it is because it shows what a thoughtful boy he was and how much he really cared about his parents.”

And Now for Something Completely Similar: Two weeks ago, the Legal Times became the first victim of the humor offensive, under the headline, “Alito Speeches Reveal a Warmer, Wittier Nominee.” In “a sampling of Alito humor,” the article recounts the pink flamingo episode and devotes several graphs to a shaggy dog tale from a bar association speech in 1996. The reporter didn’t find this spin on his own; it’s “the speech Senate aides are talking about most.”

Alito’s lengthy riff about lawyers with laptops doesn’t even have a punch line—the Legal Times just says, “He went on in that vein for awhile.” The speech is more noteworthy for Alito’s equally long riff waffling on whether the Supreme Court should be televised.

Then again, maybe everyone at the bar association meeting was in hysterics. This week, a high-school classmate on the see-America-best-by-nerd tour went to North Dakota and Montana to tell people how he had selected Alito as his debate partner: “What makes the story funny is, I chose him.” As the milk-drinkers in Fargo might say, I guess you had to be there.

Even if Sam Alito has a great sense of humor, his friends aren’t doing him any favors by saying so in advance. The worst way to spoil a good joke or comic movie is to start by telling everyone it’s really funny. On the other hand, if the high point of Alito’s self-deprecation is perfume and shaving cream, his supporters are cruel to lead him on.

As a recent study of court transcripts by Boston University law professor Jay Wexler makes clear, there is no correlation between Supreme Court justices’ philosophy and sense of humor. Justice Scalia provoked the most laughter in the court, an average of one laugh per argument. Justice Thomas finished last, prompting not a single episode of laughter whatsoever.

Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2006

Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2006

Bad Bet: As John Dickerson points out, Jack Abramoff’s plea agreement has Washington waiting for the next Gucci to drop. Dickerson lists five members with an Abramoff problem. The Wall Street Journal suggests that number could reach 60, which would put it in the same league as the House banking scandal of the early ‘90s. James Carville told the Today Show that the over/under on implicated members is seven, which would surpass Abscam and the Keating Five. Fortunately, Abramoff persuaded the Republican leadership to lay off Internet gaming so that scandal watchers can find a site to place their bets.

Republicans worry less about the total number than about the party affiliation. After a decade of opposing bipartisanship at every turn, the House Republican leadership is desperately hoping the scandal will turn out to be bipartisan so they can hide behind an “everybody does it” defense.

Even so, the overall number of congressmen caught in Abramoff’s web still matters, for two reasons. First, the more districts in which scandal becomes an issue, the more volatile the midterm elections will be. Apart from redistricting, scandal is the No. 1 risk factor for congressional mortality. Precious few members lose their seats because of shifts in the political winds, but scandal can put any seat in play.

Even the great tidal wave of 1994 had its roots in scandal. Without the congressional troubles of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, which helped fuel the term-limits movement, Newt Gingrich could never have drummed up enough voter anger to oust the ruling party.

Ironically, the Contract With America included lobbying reform and a gift ban, along with other institutional changes that Republicans have since left behind. Some of the most prominent Democratic lobbyists in town are former members who lost in 1994. (You won’t see them linked with scandal. Thanks to the K Street Project, most of them are lucky to find work.)

How many Republican members who lose their seats over Abramoff in 2006 will be working on K Street a decade from now? That brings us to the second reason that the reach of this scandal matters. We can’t say for sure how many members will lose their seats or go to jail because of Abramoff. But we can be certain that the more members who fear either of those two outcomes, the more likely Congress will finally take action to curb lobbying abuses and slow the explosive growth of the influence industry.

The terms of Abramoff’s plea bargain aren’t that important. In the long run, what matters most will be the terms of Congress’ plea bargain with the American people.

Running Scared: Already Republicans are distancing themselves from Abramoff and hinting that they will sue for peace. Gingrich, always the Republican Party’s best canary in the coal mine, has become a born-again reformer. Rep. Bob Ney warmed to reform as soon as his name made the papers; Tom DeLay may need to do the same to save his own seat. If enough members look vulnerable, Dennis Hastert will start sounding like John McCain.

Jaded Congress-watchers may look askance at any election-year change of heart by the Republicans. But as my old boss Bill Clinton used to say, we ought to believe in deathbed conversions. Reform won’t happen any other way.

In fact, while Republicans may not think so now, they might be better off if the Abramoff scandal is serious, far-reaching, and confined within their ranks—because that will force them to take serious, far-reaching action to address the problem. Over the long haul, voters are less likely to accept the everybody-does-it defense than an affirmative we’ve-done-something-about-it offense that would show that incumbents actually took this scandal to heart.

Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2006

Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2006

On Sale: We don’t celebrate Presidents’ Day until February, but at the White House, every January is Presidents’ Month. No other time of year is so stacked in a president’s favor. January is the time when the executive branch proposes what the legislative branch will spend the rest of the year disposing.

In the coming year, the Bush White House will try to bill a hundred speeches as “major.” But the one that matters most needs no extra billing: the State of the Union address, now scheduled for Jan. 31. The press often covers the State of the Union as a back-to-the-wall, death-defying event. That’s the treatment Bill Clinton got when he had to face Congress a few days after the Lewinsky scandal broke in 1998. The year before, he appeared split-screen alongside the verdict in O.J. Simpson’s civil trial.

In truth, the State of the Union is the easiest speech a president can give outside his party’s nominating convention. He has a month to practice and a ready audience: Partisans in Congress never miss an applause line, as everyone who has suffered along at home knows all too well. In a job with many perks, it’s one of the biggest: an uninterrupted hour of prime time to set the nation’s political agenda for the coming year.

But wait, there’s more. The president also has the whole month to lay the groundwork for his other command performance, the federal budget, which will be released the first week of February.

Every cut, increase, and new proposal in the $2.6 trillion budget has already been decided and is locked in the computers at OMB. The day after the budget is released, most of those details will be dead on arrival in Congress. But all January long, the White House can spoon-feed the same items to starved reporters as front-page news.

This year, thanks to the Alito hearings, Congress will make a cameo appearance in the president’s January. Unless Judge Alito falls flat on his face, however, the hearings will more likely serve as another boost for the executive branch.

The Next Franklin Pierce: Because the State of the Union serves as the traditional starting gun of the political horserace, the White House always owns the stage from Christmas until the Super Bowl. These moments of relative political calm offer an excellent window into the White House’s soul, if you can call it that.

Over the holidays, the Washington Post and New York Times produced competing versions of the White House’s as-told-to narrative. The Post offered the promising subhead, “New Approach Could Save Second Term.” Alas, the details sounded less convincing: a hybrid strategy for the president to lash out at his opponents, lower his sights, and apologize more often for his mistakes. No mention of any effort to make fewer mistakes. “We view this as not mission accomplished,” one aide told the Post. “It’s going to need to be sustained.”

If there’s any phrase more self-defeating than “mission accomplished,” it’s the teaser for David Sanger’s crafty curtain-raiser in the Times: “The Bush Legacy.” Sanger writes:

[Bush] often seems to also be talking directly to historians, tilting the pinball machine of presidential legacy. It may not be too early: the year 2006, many in the White House believe, will cement the story line of the Bush presidency for the ages. … These days, you can almost hear this administration struggling to find its own combination of domestic and foreign programs—Supreme Court appointments and education initiatives, tinkering with domestic liberties in the name of facing down foreign enemies—that makes the difference between an F.D.R. and a Franklin Pierce.

On behalf of all former White House aides who have served second-term presidents, Republican or Democrat, let me offer the Bush team some friendly advice: “Legacy” is one of the most debilitating words in the English language. Avoid the L-word at all costs: Look at it, and you will turn to stone.

A well-worn myth in Washington is that because he never has to face the electorate again, a second-term president is finally free to do what he wants. Editorial writers fantasize that at last the president will finally listen to them and say to hell with the voters. Some in the president’s inner circle fantasize that he will finally say to hell with the editorial writers and focus on the real prize: his legacy.

Early in Clinton’s second term, we banned the L-word, for the simple reason that any time spent yakking about a legacy took away from the hard work of actually building one. Worrying about his place in history is the last thing a president should do, because his real challenge in a second term is exactly the opposite—staying on top long enough to keep Congress and the press from digging him an early grave. If a White House looks, thinks, and quacks like a lame duck, it’s a lame duck.

President Bush has the rest of his life to apologize for what he has done so far. He would be better off devoting the three precious remaining years of his presidency to what historians of tomorrow and Americans of today might both applaud: better policies and better results.