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Supreme Blogger

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 1, 2009 10:50 AM

Tom Goldstein -- attorney, blogger, walking sound-bite machine -- was a guest at last week's White House rollout for Sonia Sotomayor, and moments later was holding forth on the lawn for NBC, MSNBC and Bloomberg before heading to CBS and CNN and calling back newspaper reporters from the car.

By the next day, shuttling between studios, Goldstein felt frustrated with the cable debates over the Supreme Court nominee. "They have wing nut-person X who says she's an incredibly liberal ideologue without respect for the law, and in that format you don't have to justify anything. Nobody asks follow-up questions.

"I talked to three reporters from Politico today. If they can find the Supreme Court, it's because it's because it's across the street from the Capitol. It's not their beat, and they're highly open about that."

What makes the brash and balding 38-year-old such a hot media property is Scotusblog, the Web site he founded six years ago to obsessively track the high court. At 7:34 a.m. last Tuesday, an hour before news of the nomination leaked, he posted an essay on the likely lines of attack if President Obama picked Sotomayor. Had he guessed wrong, Goldstein says, he would have looked like "the world's biggest idiot. I was out there on a limb."

Three years ago, Goldstein joined the blue-chip Washington firm of Akin Gump, which also agreed to take on Scotusblog and is listed as the site's host. Despite the unorthodox arrangement, Goldstein says his staff, which includes veteran Supreme Court reporter Lyle Denniston, has complete independence. "Lyle could write that our clients are completely insane and evil and there'd be nothing to stop him," Goldstein says in his 12th-floor office with a sweeping view of the Washington Monument.

Denniston, part of a nine-person staff of lawyers and researchers, likes the arrangement: "Tom leaves me alone in all respects. I have no assignments, no deadlines, no second-guessing."

Goldstein makes some concessions to his profession. He recently moved Akin Gump clients from the blog's list of "Petitions to Watch" at the high court, putting them at the bottom to avoid an appearance of favoritism. And Goldstein says he would stay silent rather than trash a court nominee who was likely to be confirmed. "My ethical role as a lawyer is not to wound my client," he says.

One measure of Goldstein's commitment to Scotusblog, which accepts no advertising: He keeps it afloat with up to $100,000 a year from his own pocket. "He's got some serious pride of ownership," says Goldstein's wife, lawyer Amy Howe, who also blogs at the site. "You've created this institution that people read pretty widely. He is the puppet master." The blog recorded 115,000 hits on the day of Sotomayor's nomination -- more than quadruple its usual traffic.

The blog is "enormously helpful to us," says Akin Gump Chairman Bruce McLean, because lawyers and potential clients see it as "directly connected to the prestige of the firm." The same is true, he says, for Goldstein's media profile. The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today and Chicago Tribune all quoted Goldstein on Sotomayor.

"He's very adept at being first or nearly first in terms of offering a quick take," says Joan Biskupic, Supreme Court reporter for USA Today. "He's got a very good knack for both the law and the needs of journalists on all things legal. He also knows how to distill things that help people understand what the law's about."

A former intern for Nina Totenberg at National Public Radio, Goldstein buttressed his reputation as a soothsayer in 2005 by writing on the morning that George W. Bush picked Harriet Miers that her nomination was doomed. Goldstein is a Democrat, but journalists regard him as an honest broker. He has, for instance, praised Clarence Thomas as an underrated justice.

He has also denounced activists on both sides, writing that "the most extreme interest groups and ideologues . . . rush to caricature the nominee and the opposing viewpoint." Goldstein blames the media in part, saying they carry "bumper sticker messages" from the left and right without "much nuance." Reporters, he adds in an interview, are unlikely to have read more than one Sotomayor opinion, and are trapped by a false balance in which opposing advocates are quoted with little indication of who is distorting the facts.

Based on his instinct, Goldstein's Akin Gump interns started tracking Sotomayor's record last summer, and last week Scotusblog examined 13 of her rulings as an appeals court judge. "What I do is profoundly boring to most people," he says.

A graduate of American University's law school, Goldstein founded a small firm -- soon joined by his wife -- in the third bedroom of their Northwest Washington home. He pursued his goal, to become a Supreme Court practitioner, by cold-calling lawyers in cases that might be headed for high court review. Goldstein was denigrated by more credentialed members of the bar as an overeager ambulance chaser, but the strategy worked: He has argued 21 cases before the Supreme Court. (Goldstein still finances his old firm, which includes his wife and remains at his home, now in Chevy Chase, a few doors down from Chief Justice John Roberts. The firm is an Akin Gump subcontractor.)

White House officials had asked to consult Goldstein on the court vacancy, but by the time he returned from a weekend in Paris, Obama had made his choice. Determined not to miss the action, Goldstein canceled a meeting in Los Angeles with a top producer about a reality series based on his life, the rights to which were bought by Sony Pictures Television. ("They must be smoking crack," Goldstein says.) A poker fanatic who plays with pots as large as $100,000, he also delayed plans to compete in the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.

Goldstein believes Sotomayor will be easily confirmed "unless someone finds a love child." Having declared the nomination battle over on Scotusblog, the media's favorite court pundit may have to return to full-time lawyering, at least until the story heats up again.

Footnote: Scotusblog got shout-outs yesterday on both "This Week" and "Face the Nation." Not bad for a fairly dense legal blog.

Backstage With Obama

Brian Williams, who keeps an autographed copy of Warren Burger's Supreme Court on his office wall, was struck by what happened when he asked President Obama about the Sonia Sotomayor nomination.

"After I'd asked a cluster of questions, he went back," the NBC anchor says. "He hadn't exhausted the topic. They are clearly angry at some of the comments and coverage."

The interview, which made news, was part of a prime-time series -- "Inside the Obama White House," airing tomorrow and Wednesday -- that so far has produced 150 hours of tape. A tired-sounding Willliams, who covered the Clinton White House and was an intern in the Carter White House, was delighted at the level of access, which will continue with interviews tomorrow.

"There's stuff we've never seen of how the White House operates," he says. "We were pretty stunned at how much we were able to record and how natural events seemed to be."

He recalls "walking through the West Wing and Secretary Clinton drops by to see the president. To be in the hallway when the president walks by with a handful of M&Ms, popping them in his mouth as he goes to visit his chief of staff -- it was unbelievable. I don't think the expression 'took up residence' is hyperbolic." He also spent time with Michelle Obama and went out for burgers with the president.

Such specials are part of a 40-year NBC tradition, but Williams had to make the sale, a lobbying effort that began before the election. Chief of staff Rahm Emanuel allowed the network to record some senior staff meetings but, says Williams, "Rahm closed the door in front of our crew eight times."

While such behind-the-scenes programs tend to be positive, Williams hopes to highlight the sacrifice involved in staff jobs so viewers "will see White House aides as people. There's emotion in it, pathos, personality."

More on the Court Nomination

Some other conservative voices are popping up on Sotomayor, beyond Newt and Rush calling her a racist. Peggy Noonan calls Obama's choice "a brilliant political pick -- Hispanic when Republicans have trouble with Hispanics, a woman when they've had trouble with women. Her background (public housing, Newyorican, Catholic school, Princeton, prominence) is as moving as Clarence Thomas's, and that is moving indeed. Politically she's like a beautiful doll containing a canister of poison gas: Break her and you die . . .

"Some, and they are idiots, look at Judge Sotomayor and say: attack, attack, kill. A conservative activist told the New York Times, 'We need to brand her.' Another told me a fight is needed to excite the base.

"Excite the base? How about excite a moderate, or interest an independent? How about gain the attention of people who aren't already on your side? . . .

"Serious opposition to Judge Sotomayor is not only fair, it's necessary: It's your job to oppose if you oppose. But it should be serious, not merely partisan. Mr. Obama himself well knows he voted against John Roberts and Sam Alito only in essence because they were conservative. He was planning a presidential run and playing to a left-wing base. But that didn't enhance his reputation, did it? Not with anyone who wasn't part of his base."

It's no accident, says Washington Monthly's Steve Benen, that GOP Chairman Michael Steele and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) are taking a quieter tack on Sotomayor:

"There's probably a realization -- if there's not, there should be -- that most Americans are unlikely to make a distinction between Republican activists and Republican elected officials. When the prior smears the first Latina nominee for the Supreme Court, it's the latter that will feel the electoral repercussions. The takeaway is 'Republicans attack Sotomayor, using racist tactics.' That's obviously a repugnant development for people of decency, but in a political context, it's a disaster for the party. No wonder Steele and Cornyn are scrambling.

"Post Script: Yes, it's possible that Steele and Cornyn are cheering on the unhinged activists behind the scenes, knowing that Newt and Rush can get away with screeds that those in positions of responsibility cannot. But I doubt it. GOP officials, I suspect, know this is hurting their party. There's no upside to the attacks."

Date Night

I was surprised to see the GOP sniping at Obama for taking his wife to New York for dinner and a Broadway show. Yes, it costs money to move the president around -- he and Michelle took a smaller jet to cut the cost -- but Bush took dozens of trips to Crawford and nobody said a word (except to question the number of vacation days, not the jet fuel).

The first couple dined at the Greenwich Village restaurant Blue Hill: "It summons all the correct adjectives: local, seasonal, organic, humane." Perusing the menu, I wonder whether they had the $32 wreckfish with vegetable pistou, fiddlehead ferns and ramps or the $36 grass-fed lamb with asparagus and broccoli rabe. One appetizer includes "cured immature eggs." I prefer mine mature, thank you.

Reassessing Clinton

The most remarkable thing about Peter Baker's NYT Magazine piece on Bill Clinton is his report on one of the ex-prez's old journalistic foes:

"Among those he has been friendly with lately is Christopher Ruddy, a conservative journalist who was a chief proponent of cover-up theories involving the Clintons during the 1990s. In his book, 'The Strange Death of Vincent Foster,' Ruddy rejected official findings that Foster, a deputy White House counsel, killed himself in a Virginia park and suggested the possibility of "a cover-up conducted by people who have, with the help of the press, placed themselves above the law." Ruddy also advanced the notion that Ron Brown, the Clinton commerce secretary who died in an airplane crash in Croatia in 1996, was actually shot in the head.

"Ruddy today is the founder and chief executive of Newsmax, a conservative news-magazine . . . Ruddy says he was wrong about Clinton. 'I do consider Bill Clinton a friend, and I think he would consider me a friend,' Ruddy said. 'And to think of all the wars we went through in the '90s, it seems almost surreal.' "

I guess it's true: Clinton doesn't give up until he has converted every last person in the room.

The Next Blockbuster

Bob Woodward is putting together a book about the Obama White House, he tells the New Republic: "I'm working on it and making progress."

No Remorse

It was an odd experience last week watching Sara Jane Moore talking to Matt Lauer about her attempt to kill President Gerald Ford. And former White House photographer David Hume Kennerly, who narrowly missed getting shot, wasn't pleased:

" 'That was the woman with the gun, who was in the crowd in 1975 -- and now she's talking on TV like she's discussing a knitting contest or something ludicrous like that,' Kennerly told me. 'I thought it was bizarre. I would like to say she shouldn't be on TV at all. The only reason she was on there is because she's an 80-year-old woman who, when she was 45, tried to kill the president.' "

What was infuriating was that while Moore said she was "wrong" and made a "serious error," she never expressed regret, babbling on about Vietnam and "the tenor of the time." Grandmotherly though she looks now, I would have given her a much harder time.

Hot Housewives? Here?

You have heard, perhaps, that Bravo is planning a "Real Housewives" reality series in D.C. Bloomberg's Margaret Carlson isn't rushing to her TiVo:

"In the real Washington, housewives don't have the discretionary income to be interesting. They are widowed by husbands working on -- or living off of -- Capitol Hill or the White House, virtually raising the children alone. They try to snatch a few minutes listening to National Public Radio while driving the carpool in a futile effort not to be ignored at the rare cocktail party where someone might deign to talk to them . . .

"Job lust is the only kind of lust here. We're too busy for sex, burning the midnight oil reading up on new rules on credit default swaps or watching Jon Stewart to see if a colleague is being lampooned.

"And the morning. Forget it. We're speed-clicking the remote dropping in on 'Morning Joe' and 'Today' while reading three papers to make sure we can say yes when asked if we saw that piece on land-use planning while at the gym, where we're working off the slabs of rare roast beef served at the fundraisers we can't miss."

Doesn't exactly sound like a ratings winner, except among the C-SPAN crowd.

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