On Culture

Sotomayor, Reaching Out to the Public Through Cultural Symbols

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By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 31, 2009

President Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court was sweetened with a couple of pop culture bonbons that stood out against the more serious backdrop of her housing-project upbringing, her Ivy League pedigree and her judicial experience.

As a young girl, Sotomayor was a voracious reader of Nancy Drew mysteries, the president said. And during her time on the bench she ruled on a case that ended a players' strike against Major League Baseball. Thus, the president noted, Sotomayor's judicial action saved baseball. In the realm of sports metaphors, in which every game is a battle and every player a warrior, that's the equivalent of saying Sotomayor saved America.

The anecdotes Obama relayed were as important to the stagecraft surrounding the announcement as were the flags that stood in the background. These lighthearted stories have been repeated in print and on television, not because they are especially entertaining but because they convey something about the judge that typically does not come up in congressional hearings or Internet sparring.

Popular culture provides a common vocabulary that allows people to speak in shorthand. It makes someone accessible in ways that are both frothy and meaningful. Whether it is a first lady who loves "The Brady Bunch" or a president who puts time into filling out a college basketball competition bracket, the point isn't the show or the game, it's the shared interest in the silly, the mundane, the stuff of small talk. Popular culture is the measuring rod for what is normal.

In ways that Sotomayor's modest background and super-size successes cannot, these little informational nuggets connect her to those who can't imagine what life might have been like in a Bronx housing project as well as those who cannot fathom being a student at Princeton or Yale. Baseball and Nancy Drew are common cultural ground for both ends of the spectrum. It doesn't matter if you're watching the game from the bleachers or box seats, or reading the books from a Park Avenue penthouse or a two-bedroom bungalow. Everyone is watching the same game or story unfold.

Baseball is pure Americana. No other sport in this country has been a bigger beneficiary of image management. It is one of the dullest spectator sports known to man -- second only to golf -- and yet it has been mythologized to the point that love for it is evidence of one's patriotism. Congress weighs in on steroid use in baseball as if it were a national crisis on par with failing banks. Other athletes are celebrated; they are invited to the White House; they draw bigger ratings. But baseball coats a person in a gloss of small-town Americana -- even if she's rooting for the Yankees.

Sotomayor doesn't need a flag pin on her lapel -- and she didn't wear one Tuesday -- to announce her patriotism when she's being given credit for saving the national pastime.

Nancy Drew, the classic teenage amateur detective, evokes unintimidating feminist grit accompanied by a wardrobe of cute skirts, a boyfriend named Ned and no sex talk. If that was Sotomayor's childhood role model, how scary can the lady in the black business suit be? It's not as though she was reading Judy Blume or J.D. Salinger.

Washington is expert at formal introductions of prospective bigwigs and power brokers. The setting is always gilded. (The presentation of Sotomayor to the public took place in the golden East Room.) The cameras splash light around the room -- a quiet reminder that this is all being captured for posterity. And the speeches are written to extract the full range of emotions, from awe to empathy -- with a brief pause at sentimentality during which the audience is directed to the sight of a proud parent, grandparent or sibling beaming from the front row.

At first glance, it would seem that the biggest priority at these affairs is to impress the audience. But it's not. The detailing of the résumé comes across as almost perfunctory -- something done for the record, especially since most Americans would be hard-pressed to distinguish between appellate courts, district courts and the DMV. Book smarts are assumed until a nominee is proven incompetent or the tide of public opinion rises up and declares the nominee an intellectual lightweight.

The real point of the introduction is empathy. It has been important to tell the American public that a nominee is a family man with two little ones named Josie and Jack, a small-town girl who grew up on a cattle ranch or a bootstrapper from Pin Point, Ga. All that minutiae is meant to serve as evidence that the nominee shares common ground with average folks. Except for those born into the loftiest of circumstances -- as in having large public monuments named in honor of their ancestors -- everyone considers their beginnings humble, the same way everyone who hasn't been profiled in Forbes magazine claims to be middle-class. It is safe to assume that no president has ever introduced a nominee for any position by saying: "I'd like everyone to meet Joe. He's led an incredibly charmed life."

People may spend the next few months poring over Sotomayor's opinions, speeches and random asides to get a sense of how she thinks. But rest assured, someone is already wondering which Nancy Drew mystery is the judge's favorite.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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