Biden His Time

If everyone in America—the butcher down the block, the college professor, the car mechanic, the mother of two working at home, the CNN analyst—knows that the U.S. senators questioning Sam Alito are posing, are using their airtime to promote themselves and play to their base, then will anyone in America be impressed by what the senators say, or how they pose? Isn’t that like saying, “I know it’s all spin, but he spun me like a top!”?

If everyone in America—again, everyone—knows Judge Alito’s job is to reveal as little as possible about his true thoughts and convictions while coming across in the hearings as a well balanced, intelligent and experienced person, will anyone come away with a solid conviction, as opposed to a hunch, that Judge Alito will be an honest and reliable interpreter of the Constitution?

It is odd that in the age of big media, when everything is shown to us live, up close, and on a high-resolution screen, we still, in the pursuit of insight and knowledge, have to spend all our time reading between the lines.

I wish they would be, thought they could be, honest. “You are bad because you are not a liberal, and I am a liberal so I vote against you. Feh.” “Of course I think Roe v. Wade was badly thought through, and you probably admit as much yourself, Senator, in your private thoughts.”

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In a way, the whole manufactured issue of Princeton at least clears the air a little. Mr. Alito, in the late 1970s, apparently belonged to an alumni group that had taken issue with the liberalization that was at that time sweeping that university and others. Liberal senators are suggesting he didn’t want women or blacks admitted. Judge Alito says he doesn’t remember exactly why he joined Concerned Alumni of Princeton, or what issue or issues compelled his joining.

He was given the opportunity to note at the hearings that Princeton at the time was considering throwing ROTC off the campus. Wouldn’t Judge Alito, who was a cadet, likely have opposed such a move? But Judge Alito didn’t take the lifeline, responding with seeming candor, that he couldn’t say that was part of his thinking, he didn’t remember. I think he will beat back this issue with ease—Americans are used to charges like this and have been used to them for 30 years—and Judge Alito doesn’t seem remotely like a person who is or has been hostile to blacks, women or anyone else. As a young middle-class kid of Italian ancestry at an Ivy League school, his sympathies would likely have gone in the direction of anyone who felt that he was on the outside, not the inside.

But here’s where the issue clears some air. Either liberals like Ted Kennedy really believe that conservatives harbor deep in their hearts an animus toward women, and blacks, and Hispanics, and everyone who is not a white male, or liberals simply enjoy, for reasons that are cynical and perhaps also psychological (“The people I fight are bad; this buttresses my belief that I, in spite of what I know about myself, am good”), suggesting that conservatives are full of narrow-minded bigotry and hatred. Maybe a Republican senator could bring this question to the floor, and ask Pat Leahy or Mr. Kennedy. The thing is, it is a mystery: Do they really think that about us, or are they just playing games and jerking everyone around?

Also: wouldn’t it be nice if the senators suggesting bigotry apologized to Mrs. Alito for causing her distress? Oh, I wish they’d apologize to the country for causing it distress. Anyway, they made a mistake. Her tears presage his victory.

Let’s cause some senators distress. The great thing about Joe Biden during the Alito hearings, the reason he is, to me, actually endearing, is that as he speaks, as he goes on and on and spins his long statements, hypotheticals, and free associations—as he demonstrates yet again, as he did in the Roberts hearings and even the Thomas hearings, that he is incapable of staying on the river of a thought, and is constantly lured down tributaries from which he can never quite work his way back—you can see him batting the little paddles of his mind against the weeds, trying desperately to return to the river but not remembering where it is, or where it was going. I love him. He’s human, like a garrulous uncle after a drink.

In this, in the hearings, he is unlike Ted Kennedy in that he doesn’t seem driven by some obscure malice—Uh, I, uh, cannot, uh, remembuh why I hate you, Judge Alioto, but there, uh, must be a good reason and I will, um, damn well find it. When he peers over his glasses at Judge Alito he is like an old woman who’s unfortunately senile and quite sure the teapot on the stove is plotting against her. Mr. Biden is also unlike Chuck Schumer in that he doesn’t ask questions with an air of, With this one I’m going to trap you and leave you flailing like a bug in a bug zapper—we’re going to hear your last little crackling buzz any minute now!

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But what interests me most is Judge Alito, and his ability to just sit there and listen. To show nothing, like a stunned ox, or, as Sen. Dianne Feinstein put in on CNN, like a person with clear judicial demeanor.

How does he do it? This wonderful look of enforced blandness. It’s a low affect tour de force.

And it cannot be easy. When Mr. Biden says things like, “Try to follow me, Judge Alito,” as he goes on one of his long, sterile journeys, I wonder if Judge Alito has to control himself with an act of will. I wonder if he has an inner Regis Philbin, and wants to throw out his arms and say, “Follow you? If I follow you, we’ll both wind up lost!” When Mr. Biden says, “Now this is a somewhat subtle point,” I wonder if Judge Alito wants to say, “Joe, if it were a subtle point you wouldn’t be making it!”

This is the authentic sound, though not the authentic words, of Joe Biden, and this is what Judge Alito has to discipline himself not to respond to:

What if a fella—I’m just hypothesizing here, Judge Alito—what if a fella said, “Well I don’t want to hire you because I don’t like the kind of eyeglasses you wear,” or something like that. Follow my thinking here. Or what if he says “I won’t hire you because I don’t like it that you wear black silk stockings and a garter belt. And your name is Fred.” Strike that—just joking, trying to lighten this thing up, we can all be too serious. Every 10 years when you see me at one of these hearings I am different from every other member of Judiciary in that I have more hair than the last time. You know why? It’s all the activity in my brain! It breaks through my skull and nourishes my follicles with exciting nutrients! Try to follow me.

How does Judge Alito put up with this?

How does any nominee?

Must he sit there bland-faced and unmoving as they say what they say? Yes, of course. Judge Alito and the White House know they have to let these men talk. They don’t want the senators to feel resentful or frustrated. They know each senator feels he has to play to his base. They know the senators are, by nature, like Conair 2000 hairdryers: They just love to blow, and hard. Fwwaaaaahhhhhhhhh. And they know it is good, it is helpful, to let each senator reveal himself through his own words. I think senators feel that their words, when strung together, become little bridges. I think the White House feels that their words, when strung together, become little nooses.

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But this one is all kind of over, isn’t it? It definitively ended when Mrs. Alito walked out in tears. But to me it seemed over on day one. The Democrats on the committee seemed forlorn in a way, as if they knew deep in their hearts that nobody’s listening. Two decades ago they could make their speeches and fake their indignation and accuse a Robert Bork of being a racist chauvinist woman hater and their accusations would ring throughout the country. But now the media they relied on have lost their monopoly. Everyone who’s fired at gets to fire back, shot for shot.

It’s all changed. Which is one reason Judge Alito will be confirmed, and another reason I like Joe Biden. He still has the old spirit—an ingenuous spirit, a crazy one, a stupid one. But spirit nonetheless.