Page 2 of 4   <       >

For Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, a history of pragmatism over partisanship

Video
The Washington Post's Robert Barnes discusses Solicitor General Elena Kagan's non-judicial background and looks ahead to the confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill.

"She has a calm mind," said Sean Wilentz, a Princeton historian who was Kagan's thesis adviser. "She is not hepped up. She looks at things from many angles"

Family influence

The rarified perches Kagan has occupied are a considerable distance from the New York world of social activism and Jewish orthodoxy in which she grew up.

Born in April 1960, she was the middle child and only daughter of Robert Kagan and Gloria Gittelman Kagan. The family lived in a four-room apartment in Stuyvesant Town, and until it moved to the Upper West Side when she was a teenager, a relative said, Kagan shared a bedroom with her two brothers.

Their home was crammed with books and art -- and often filled with friends and relatives who shared her parents' political passions. "They were people who had a very keen sense of social justice," said the relative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

After graduating from Yale Law School, Robert Kagan worked to secure federal protections for Native Americans, then focused on the rights of apartment dwellers on Manhattan's West Side. His wife taught poor students in Harlem, then moved to Hunter College Elementary School, a selective school Kagan attended.

When she was young, the family belonged to Lincoln Square Synagogue. In the male-dominated religious culture of Orthodox Judaism, Kagan became one of the first girls to be bat mitzvahed. Her maternal grandfather in Philadelphia helped convince the synagogue's rabbi that girls deserved the opportunity, according to the relative.

Hunter College High School was the kind of place where teenage girls worked together on the New York Times crossword puzzle. Even in that environment, Kagan stood out. "She was always very driven. . . . She didn't get sidetracked by feelings," Gwyn Murray, a classmate, said.

Her senior year, Kagan was elected president of the student body. A yearbook photo of the officers shows her in a black robe, holding a gavel. And for the quote beneath her yearbook portrait, she chose one from a former Supreme Court justice, Felix Frankfurter: "Government is itself an art, one of the subtlest of arts."

Active but not activist

When she entered Princeton in the fall of 1977, Kagan was 17, younger than most of the freshmen because she had graduated from high school early. Her friends tended to be relatively intellectual students who gravitated toward the Prince, as insiders call the student paper, and positions in student government.

They were active on campus but not especially activist, according to several of her friends from that time. Apart from her lament over the defeat of Holtzman, Kagan made few explicitly political gestures.

Although some of her friends were protesting for Princeton to divest its holdings in apartheid South Africa, she was more detached, going to work on the student newspaper as a freshman. The Prince and her studies were her central focus, and halfway through her junior year, she ran for, but lost, the paper's top editor's spot. Kagan was the runner-up and chose to head the editorial-writing team, but the editorials were nearly all unsigned, so they did not become a platform for her individual views.


<       2           >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company