By Dana Milbank
Thursday, November 3, 2005
Senators will debate Supreme Court nominee Sam Alito's legal views for months, but this much is settled law: The Senate is witnessing a real-life revenge of the nerd.
Alito, bespectacled, hair askew, suit rumpled and ill-fitting, walked into Sen. Tim Johnson's office this week to pay a courtesy call on the South Dakota Democrat. Sitting in an armchair in the senator's office, Alito forgot to unbutton his suit jacket, causing his tie to stick out and his jacket to bunch up. The judge's pant leg hiked up as he sat, revealing an untied shoelace.
"Ever been to South Dakota?" Johnson asked.
"No," Alito replied, adding quickly, "but I've always wanted to."
Alito's professed desire to see the Badlands -- evoking images of the robed jurist on a cattle drive -- would not have been easy to predict from his background.
We know from published profiles of the judge this week that in high school, valedictorian Alito ran track, played trumpet in the band, and was editor of the school paper and a member of the state-finalist debate team. At Princeton, he skipped the selective eating clubs to join Stevenson Hall, known as a haven for dweebs.
At Yale Law School, he was the wonk whose notes other students borrowed. "Quiet," "shy" and "reserved" are the words law-school friend Dennis Grzezinski provided to The Post's Laura Blumenfeld. When it came to the party scene, "Sam could well have been the designated driver."
In recent years, Alito insisted on wearing a baseball uniform while coaching Little League. As an appellate judge, he hung in his chambers a large poster of former Philadelphia Phillies baseball star Mike Schmidt. He went to baseball fantasy camp and had a baseball card made of himself.
Are these not the marks of a nerd? The question was put to Dan Coats, the former senator who is chaperoning Alito through the Senate confirmation process.
"I'm not going to affirm that," Coats said. "I'll just say he's a serious student of the law."
Okay, but what about a fortysomething guy wearing Little League stirrups? "I admire somebody who can take off the robe and put on a baseball uniform," Coats posited gamely.
Washington is a town of geeks and misfits who, for the most part, suppress their inner dorks much of the time. But Alito wears this status on his sleeve: Leaving the cloistered courtroom, he emerges, blinking, into the sunlight.
This, obviously, is not disqualifying. What better place for a supreme square than the Supreme Court? And President Bush, a frat boy himself, has acquired a taste for the nerdy: His nominee for Federal Reserve Board chairman, Ben Bernanke, is known for wearing tan socks with dark suits.
On the other hand, Alito has the disadvantage of following John Roberts, who was just as smart but carried himself like a big man on campus: athletic build, quick humor and good looks. Compared with Roberts, Alito looks as if he were in town for a "Star Trek" convention.
In the office of Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), when cameras and microphones got too close, the nominee pushed himself deeper into his seat. Leaving a meeting with Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), Alito reached to shake the senator's hand, then quickly pulled it back when sensing that Nelson was not ready. Greeting Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), Alito stood in the reception room clasping and unclasping his hands, then rubbing his right index finger.
Leaving the office of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) yesterday, Alito caught his foot in carpeting and briefly stumbled while getting in the elevator.
When he walks between visits, Alito arches his back and stretches his neck. Wearing a fixed grin, he bobs his head right and left so frequently that reporters following him have dubbed him a "Bobblehead."
The nominee walks in almost complete silence between stops, unrecognized by passing tourists, rarely conversing even with his White House handlers as they wait for elevators. His public words are perfunctory.
"Very good meeting," he said, leaving Johnson's office.
"Can you stop and talk to us?" a TV producer called out.
Alito looked stricken. "No," he said. "But it was a very good meeting."
Occasionally, the nominee cannot escape the public eye, as when a photographer jumped in the Senate subway with him yesterday. Alito passed the ride making small talk with Coats about the mechanics of the subway. Disembarking in the Russell Building's basement, he was pursued down a hallway by a media pack -- until he and Coats ducked into a men's room. One of his handlers stood guard at the door. "No one follows!" she ordered.
Next stop: the office of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex). Alito sat stiffly, his buttoned suit jacket bunching up, his fingers gripping his knees, his toes pointed inward. He tapped his foot on the ground anxiously. But, there was progress: This time, his shoelaces were tied.