“Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.” That’s the classic line, slightly misquoted, by Bette Davis as the imperious Margo Channing in “All About Eve.” Ascending a staircase, she looks down at the milling crowd in evening attire. It’s supposed to be a civilized gathering. But she knows better; all the tensions down there are about to spill over.
The actual line predicts only “a bumpy night,” but anyone aware of how human beings behave when power is at stake knows the bumpy ride will last longer than one night. That may explain why it’s been altered in the repetition over the years. The not-so-fictive Miss Channing understood what vicious games can be played in genteel surroundings.
Genteel surroundings like the U.S. Senate, which is about to see the best debate money can buy over a judicial nomination. All the interest groups on both sides are lining up and getting their fund-raising letters in the mail.
An opportunity like this doesn’t come all that often. Any Supreme Court vacancy lets all combatants hyperventilate. One group’s Champion of the Constitution may be another’s Right-Wing Nutcase. And even if the president chooses a “noncontroversial” nominee (some chance), one side’s Mush-Brained Wimp will be the other’s Thoughtful Moderate.
Each side will view the other with alarm, if not hysteria. There’s no greater spur to political fund-raising than a good dose of fear and loathing. Professional propagandists left and right are whipping up givers great and small. Money already is rolling in.
A Syracuse University political science professor whose specialty is the lobbying industry estimated all pressure groups combined will spend $100 million in this lollapalooza of a fight. And that was just when one seat was open on the court. Now two seats soon may be at stake. Everybody is getting those press releases ready.
For example: In the far corner in white trunks you’ll find Progress for America, funded by some of the president’s biggest money-raisers. It has pledged to put up $18 million for this summer’s blockbuster.
In the other, equally far corner, also in white trunks, is MoveOn.org, and its Mr. Moneybags, the free-spending George Soros. MoveOn.org already has spent $280,000 on scare ads. (Sample: “Will George Bush choose an extremist who will threaten our rights?”)
You can almost hear the dossiers being compiled on every possible nominee. But, hey, it’s a free country: Everybody can get in on the act — a k a, the vortex of public opinion.
And maybe everybody should. A nominee to the high court should receive the closest scrutiny; these anticipated appointments could be the most important Mr. Bush ever makes. For what decision was more important, or better, than John Adams’ midnight appointment of John Marshall to the court? And who proved a worse disaster than Roger Taney when he cobbled together the Dred Scott decision?
Alexander Hamilton once called the judiciary the least dangerous branch of government; it was one of the few mistaken judgments he ever made. The judicial branch may now be the most dangerous, restrained only by its own sense of limits. That is why the most important quality in the next justice of the Supreme Court may be a judicial temperament.
It’s not the most blatant or opinionated in this coming fight who will bear the most watching. At least they’re open about their opinions. It’s those who pretend to be above the fray while pursuing the most partisan agenda. For example, a senator like New York’s Charles Schumer, a Democrat who claims to be taking a moderate line even while preparing to wage an immoderate, all-out political war.
Then there’s Sen. Blanche Lincoln, Arkansas Democrat, who may claim she is not conducting a filibuster (against a John Bolton or Miguel Estrada, for example) but only innocently seeking more information from the nominee. She’s the personification of the immoderate moderate in this debate.
Who will win this fight? The side that seems most reasonable. Which is why an all-out filibuster in the Senate might stop a nominee but lose the more important battle for public opinion.
The one description Democrats don’t want attached to them is Obstructionist. The one adjective the Republicans want to avoid is Radical. Or, just as bad, Extremist. Barry Goldwater’s candor may have won him a lot of praise in retrospect, but only six states in 1964 and an anemic 36 percent of the popular vote. This is a consensus country.
And so the great game of more-moderate-than-thou begins. But even if everyone appears oh-so-civil as this glittering party gets under way, appearances can be deceptive.
Take your cue from Margo Channing: Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.