Too Perfect to Know the People?

By Richard Cohen
Thursday, September 8, 2005

I sometimes think the best thing that ever happened to me was, at the time, the worst: I flunked out of college. I did so for the usual reasons -- painfully bored with school and distracted by life itself -- and so I went to work for an insurance company while I plowed ahead at night school. From there I went into the Army, emerging with a storehouse of anecdotes. In retrospect, I learned more by failing than I ever would have by succeeding. I wish that John Roberts had a touch of my incompetence.

Instead, the nominee for chief justice of the United States punched every career ticket right on schedule. He was raised in affluence, educated in private schools, dispatched to Harvard and then to Harvard Law School. He clerked for a U.S. appellate judge (the storied Henry J. Friendly) and later for William H. Rehnquist, then an associate justice. Roberts worked in the Justice Department and then in the White House until moving on to Hogan & Hartson, one of Washington's most prestigious law firms; then he was principal deputy solicitor general, before moving to the bench, where he has served for only two years. His record is appallingly free of failure.

I envy him for it and admire him as well. He has the sort of first-class intellect, not to mention an impish sense of humor, that commends itself to the high court. We would not want a dunce or a mediocrity to decide the sort of matters that come before the court. Unlike, say, the presidency, the Supreme Court is no place for a sluggish thinker who thinks -- if that is the word -- that in the schools the non-theory of "intelligent design" ought to be taught along with the theory of evolution. (What next, alchemy and chemistry?) But when Sandra Day O'Connor leaves the Supreme Court, it will be without any member who has spent so much as a day as an elected official. Roberts will not change that. He, too, never worked the beach on Labor Day. If he has a politician's talent -- not weakness -- for compromise, we don't know it. If he has great leadership qualities -- or any at all -- we don't know it. If he can bring unanimity where it matters -- as Earl Warren did in 1954 with the school desegregation decision -- we don't know it. All we really know is that he is young (50), smart and makes, as they say, a nice appearance.

But it is not only the lack of political experience that I rue today, it is also the lack of life experiences that makes me wonder. Just before writing this column, I came across an obituary for Theodore Sarbin, a social psychologist who died Aug. 31 at the nice age of 94. Sarbin's claim to newspaper space was his 1988 report recommending that the military stop discriminating against gays and lesbians. This is the sentence that caught my attention: "As a young man, he rode the rails as a hobo, an experience he would later say helped him identify with people on the margins of society." The best Roberts could do in this respect was to work summers in a steel mill. He shared the work -- but not the plight.

Failure has its uses. Among other things, it can teach us about the human condition. It took a certain kind of cold arrogance to come up with the evacuation plan that New Orleans devised: Get everyone out of town. But what about those who could not get out of town? What about those with no cars or those already living on the streets? In other words, what about the very poor?

The poor? It's as if the idiots up and down the line never heard of them. It's as if no one at the top of the Federal Emergency Management Agency or at the White House knew they existed. Check that. They knew, but it was theoretical: Oh, they'll manage. The thinking was summed up in the sorry remark of Barbara Bush while she was visiting flood evacuees at a Houston relocation site. Since the refugees sent to Houston were poor to start with, she said, "this is working very well for them." Madam, bite thy tongue.

If I had a vote in the Senate, I would not deny it to Roberts based on his lack of tough times -- nor, for that matter, would I have granted one to Clarence Thomas, who had plenty of them. But when it comes to civil rights, to women's rights, to workers' rights, to gay rights and to the plight of the poor, I would prefer that Roberts had had his moment of failure. He will lead one branch of the government. I wish he knew more about all of the people.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company