Kagan boosted by her buddies

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 12, 2010; 9:06 AM

Elena Kagan knows the right people, and it's paying off.

First and foremost, of course, she had the good fortune to be teaching law at the University of Chicago at the same time as Barack Obama.

She is firmly plugged into the Beltway-to-Boston elite -- the upper crust of the media, academia, law and politics -- in ways that create a presumption of excellence and lots of favorable profiles. It means there are big-name law professors who can be trotted out to vouch for her brilliance, and political operatives who touted her as the front-runner all along.

Being an insider's insider pays all kinds of dividends, especially if you once sat atop the power base known as Harvard. And we are seeing that in the early wave of who-is-she coverage.

CNN's Jeffrey Toobin posted a blog headlined "My Law School Classmate, Elena Kagan." Toobin pronounced her "smart, funny, self-confident, extremely intelligent but not obnoxious about it."

The New Republic's legal editor, Jeffrey Rosen, also speaks from personal experience:

"I first met Kagan in the mid-'90s when we were both former law clerks for Judge Abner Mikva on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Since then, I've run into her every few years, as she moved from the University of Chicago Law School to the Clinton administration back to Harvard, and most recently to the Solicitor General's Office, where my brother-in-law is now her deputy. I've always been struck by her ability to ask a friendly but pointed question that identified the hardest issue in the legal dispute, to connect to the people she was questioning with an uncanny ability to see things from their intellectual perspective, and then to reframe the issue on her own terms so that the resolutions seemed clearer and more compelling."

On the "CBS Evening News" on Monday, Jan Crawford, the network's legal correspondent, reported that "as the first woman dean of Harvard Law School and first woman solicitor general, she is considered an intellectual heavyweight."

Then came Katie Couric's question: "Jan, I know you were a student of Elena Kagan's when she was a professor at the University of Chicago Law School. So, was she tough?"

"She was very tough!" Crawford replied. "I had her for two classes. But she was very challenging, while at the same time very engaging and lively."

Turns out that Kagan is even a former Washington Post lawyer. As my colleague Al Kamen reports, she worked on a couple of cases for the paper while practicing at Williams & Connolly, perhaps the bluest of the city's blue-chip firms, launched by Edward Bennett Williams.

And the New York Times found multiple story lines in Kagan having grown up on the Upper West Side, including a sidebar on her alma mater, Hunter College High School.

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