Too many media people around this past week’s supreme Court hearings wasted their energy doing horse race and atmosphere coverage. Political sportscasters, I call them; and pretty bush league at that.
Their frame was: the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh (hereafter “K“) is a done deal, so all that matters is the hullabaloo, that and the shadow horse race preview of the 2020 Democratic presidential contest. Which meant excessive attention to whether aspirants Kamala Harris or Cory Booker managed to draw some blood and get a boost from a bombshell revelation.
But the pair, it was reported, didn’t bring any real ordnance, and neither came out with a 2020 home run. That’s true enough, and for the media political sportscasters, this was all that mattered. And that’s utterly mistaken.
The New York Times’s Saturday postmortem reflected this outlook:
“Boorish. Rude. Disrespectful. Insulting. Grandstanding. Hyperventilating. Deranged. Ridiculous. Drivel.
Those were among the words angry Senate Republicans used this week to assail the conduct of Democrats at a Supreme Court hearing that was often tense and sometimes toxic. . . .
With little power to stop a nominee they saw as a conservative partisan, a Republican-imposed process they considered grossly unfair and a demanding political base spoiling for a fight, they decided it was time to sow disorder over the court.“
For me such reportage was mainly stale baloney. Its superficiality is a disgrace to their profession. It only reports one superficial level of the debate that went on there.
I experienced a very different set of hearings. They began when I tuned in Tuesday morning, and heard Rhode Island’s Sheldon Whitehouse’s begin his opening statement.
It was stunning: clear, specific, cogent, passionate, judiciously profane, and set out a well-researched yet concise list of propositions about the likely negative effects of K’s elevation.
The sportscasters basically ignored it, probably because Whitehouse is from a small state — and he isn’t running for president.
Yet over the next three days I heard a lot of testimony that corroborated Whitehouse’s arguments. On one side, I listened to K set what seemed like a record in spewing non-answers, fouling off just about every concrete issue Whitehouse and then other Dems threw at him, which they did by the bushel. No surprise there; K has coached others in this drill, and Dems have done it in their turn. Nevertheless, as the hours passed, patterns and themes emerged.
The Republicans also scripted the next part of their campaign well: filling hours with gushing testimonials that became painful earworms, declaring that K is really such a nice guy, kind to kids, coaching girls basketball teams (where;’s he called “Coach K) for the Catholic Youth Organization, yada yada, yada yada, yada yada.
Okay, already; if I was hiring a male nanny, he’d top the list.
Then there came a battalion of former students and clerks to repeat that he’s a highly-regarded law professor, and good at mentoring students and clerks. I don’t doubt it. So if I needed a tutor . . . .
It was soon clear that the GOP goal here was not simply to prove K was a swell fellow, but also to put the sportscasters into a deep sleep by chanting the same mantra over and over; and at this it was a smashing success. After all, in this era of scandal upon scandal, what is more boring than a certified wholesome Catholic family man. (Especially one who has the votes in his pocket, right next to his visibly dogeared copy of the Constitution).
After a day of this, the sportscasters were squirmingly ready to bolt this snooze-a-thon. The New York Times‘s anonymous inside-the-white-house “resistance” OpEd piece gave them, or at least their editors, the opening: by Thursday, even if they were still stuck in the hearing room, many were chasing the will-of-the-wisp author (still nameless as of this writing).
So that left Friday, when the Dems were to have their chance with outside witnesses. By then, the sportscasters couldn’t have cared less, and many reports I’ve seen don’t mention them except in passing.
But in fact, the day was full of substance. For one thing, it became clear to me that while K is definitely a total law geek, he’s also full of law shtick. He has pretty much mastered the legal arcana for the major issues the Democrats brought up, and can riff on them on cue, in whatever length and degree of technicality seems needful to fend off ever committing himself on what he believes or how he might rule on any of them.
While these cases are all above my pay grade, after several hours of this, even I could begin to discern what Whitehouse had called the key patterns in K‘s thought and decisions. These became more evident when the Dems’ outside witnesses finally alined up on Friday and took their turns at the mike. They included lawyers and professors, plus Parkland survivors, the head of the Congressional Black Caucus, and persons with chronic diseases for whom Obamacare is a matter of life or death. About the only ones missing were detainees at Gitmo, but they had other commitments.
One after another, the Dems’ outside witnesses crisply and expertly picked K‘s arguments apart, showing how in one area of litigation after another, amid K‘s thick weeds of legalese, were decisions and dissents that have reliably favored the rich, comforted the corporate, put the knives into abortion, Obamacare, affirmative action and voting rights; and promoted an all-but unchallengeable “unitary” presidency, in peace or especially in war.
This last was particularly eye-opening. K’s president would be free, among other things, to ignore pesky laws (such as the one John McCain authored against torture) with imperial “signing statements”; to squash upstart federal environmental and consumer advocates like so many bugs ; to mock international law, spy on citizens, and torture or imprison suspects (including U. S. citizens) without charge or trial, for life, under the all-purpose rubrics of “national security” and “originalism.”
The Friday session even featured a living ghost and a ghoul. The ghost was John Dean, onetime lawyer to Richard Nixon, whose surprise 1973 testimony against his former boss started the avalanche that swept Nixon out of the White House.
Dean’s message was stark. “If Judge Kavanaugh joins that court, it will be the most pro-presidential powers-friendly Court in the modern era,” he said.
“Under Judge Kavanaugh’s recommendation, if a President shot somebody in cold blood on 5th Avenue, that President could not be prosecuted while in office.”
The ghoul came in the person of Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana, off the JV bench, subbing for Committee chair Charles Grassley. Despite his first class law degree from Oxford, Kennedy has cultivated in the senate a deep-in-the-bayou persona and accent, and he picked up the gavel at the session with an old score to settle: he called Dean a “rat” for testifying against Nixon, and accused him of harming the country thereby.
Dean has heard worse, and was ready. He parried smoothly, replying that he had published a book on Watergate (actually he’s written several such), explaining why he had turned against Nixon, and would send Kennedy a copy to assist his understanding.
Kennedy, who had likely been waiting forty-five years to launch this public sneer at Dean, only managed to show that an Oxford degree is no bar to its holder making a ghoulish fool of himself.
The upshot of these last hours was a cascade of confirmations of the many-counts of Sheldon Whitehouse’s neglected opening indictment. This bookend, as far as I can see, was ignored by the sportscasters, who had to catch up with the latest tweets, or push off for a weekend at the beach.
But at least one non-sportscaster observer did keep up. Adam Serwer of the Atlantic had just posted thus:
“The Roberts Court is poised to shape American society in Trump’s image for decades to come. All three branches of the federal government are now committed to the Trump agenda: the restoration of America’s traditional racial, religious, and gender hierarchies; the enrichment of party patrons; the unencumbered pursuit of corporate profit; the impoverishment and disenfranchisement of the rival party’s constituencies; and the protection of the president and his allies from prosecution by any means available. Not since the end of Reconstruction has the U.S. government been so firmly committed to a single, coherent program uniting a politics of ethnonationalism with unfettered corporate power. As with Redemption, as the end of Reconstruction is known, the consequences could last for generations.”
I believe Serwer is quite right that we subjects of this impending legal rollback face a multi-generational agenda of resistance and recovery. And for me, listening with one ear through these grueling days, his and Sheldon Whitehouse’s frame for the week was much more useful than the sophomoric sportscasters’ blather about jockeying by Booker vs Harris. Instead, Whitehouse, Serwer and the public witness pierced K’s smokescreen. They may not have changed the vote count, but they have laid out the signs of the time.
And for those with eyes to see, and hands willing for the plough, these signs could be invaluable in finding our way into the long journey and multiple struggles ahead.