- The Washington Times - Friday, January 13, 2006

It hurts a newspaperman to admit it, but there is something remarkably revealing about watching congressional hearings on TV instead of just reading about them. Maybe because not just the witness’ words but his demeanor, even his character are transmitted. Call it the “You Are There” factor.

John Roberts, the new chief justice, was clearly a star when he appeared before the committee — though he took pains to avoid any display of starlike ego. He was just about the perfect nominee for the court, as the solid vote for him demonstrated. If anything about him irked, it was that he was a mite too perfect, too studied, too well-rehearsed. Or so the camera told us.

And when Clarence Thomas turned on his tormentors on the committee years ago, and told them what they could do with their precious Supreme Court seat after he was subjected to a high-tech lynching, it would have taken a cold partisan indeed not to recognize that at last here was a nominee who valued something beyond his nomination, like his reputation.

Clarence Thomas had been expected to bow and scrape when he was sandbagged; instead he let that whole crew have it. And much of the nation cheered. It was like watching the Christians turn on the lions in the Coliseum and completely devour them. No wonder he’s now Mr. Justice Thomas.

Most striking about Judge Alito’s testimony before the committee and, more important, the cameras, is how unstriking he is. He could be any nice Italian boy from Jersey. He must have been well coached indeed to appear so uncoached.

To sit there so patiently before that whole pack of bloviating senators, among them nudniks of the first order like New York’s Charles Schumer and the unabidable Joe Biden of Delaware, bless his heart, and parry their oh-so-clever thrusts without any fancy wordplay or trace of a grimace, but to treat one and all, supporters and critics, with equal equanimity… is to show a forbearance of which few of us might be capable.

Anybody who could put up with just Ted Kennedy alone deserves a medal for patience beyond and above the call of judicial duty. The Massachusetts senator has to be the most abrasive, ideological and plain rudest of all these not-so-grand inquisitors. (Did you notice how he interrupted the witness?) Mr. Kennedy’s mind isn’t just closed, it’s hermetically sealed.

And as for his questioning Sam Alito’s candor and integrity, or anybody else’s, that spectacle can be dismissed with three words: Mary Jo Kopechne.

Sam Alito had to have been coached by a whole lifetime of experience to respond to all these provocations with so little pretension and such basic competence.

Unpretentious and competent. Those same adjectives might apply to much of Judge Alito’s legal work, agree or disagree with his conclusions. Surely no one would call it brilliant, which comes as something of a relief after watching so much brilliance so ill-used in law and politics. If his jurisprudence is not brilliant, it is unfailingly workmanlike, like the man himself.

Surely even those who oppose his nomination — the fair-minded opposition — must recognize that, however little they may think of Judge Alito’s law or his politics, his elemental decency comes through on camera. At this rate, his kind of law, and his kind of personhood, could yet give lawyers a good name, improbable as that outcome may seem.

How describe the impression he leaves? Perhaps by noting its opposite. For example, even those who supported Robert Bork’s ill-fated nomination to the court years ago had to admit there was something entirely too combative just under the surface of his oh-so-civil responses, even when retreating from earlier positions. It was no surprise when he got borked.

Judge Bork’s inability to suffer fools, or just those whose ideology differed from his own, was apparent despite his uneven efforts to control it. It came through not so much in his words, but in the visual impression he left.

The camera can be mighty revealing. No wonder the Army-McCarthy hearings, or rather their being on television, did in Joe McCarthy. For not just the witness but the inquisitors are subject to its unblinking eye. There are some things not all the pancake makeup in the world can mask.

But there is none of that Borkian pretension, intellectual or otherwise, in Sam Alito. How describe him? Well, think of Robert Byrd, the forever posturing Senator Foghorn from West Virginia, with all his 19th-century oratory and general rodomontade, and an undisguisable air of a man who would lead a public subscription drive to erect a statue in his own honor… then picture the opposite. And you’ll have Sam Alito from Trenton, N.J.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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