An earlier version of this story misstated Georgetown law professor Chai Feldblum's role at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This version has been corrected.
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Kagan has many achievements, but her world has been relatively narrow
"When the people on the search committee met with her, they were quite struck by how narrow her range of interests were," says this person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a confidential deliberation that ended with the installation of historian Drew Gilpin Faust as Harvard's first female president in February 2007.
"You wanted to find people with curiosity about a range of issues and thought about the university. But there were a lot . . . who thought she was quite parochial."
Similarly, when Kagan advanced in 2000 to the shortlist to become dean of the University of Texas Law School, her experience with only elite private institutions hurt her.
"We needed someone who had an appreciation for all the subtleties of being at the University of Texas," said Hector Torres, an alumnus on the search committee, with its diverse student body and constant scrapes with the state over funding and admission quotas.
Kagan confided a deep disappointment to some friends when she was passed over for the Harvard presidency, and her eyes welled with tears when hundreds of law school students threw her a surprise party to celebrate still having her as their dean. But the few times doors have closed on her, others have opened. Two years later, she was sworn in as the nation's first female solicitor general.
'A great, great moment'
There is no question that Kagan's surefooted sense of self has led her to the steps of the Supreme Court, where five of the justices attended Harvard Law. As a nominee, she may be unequaled in her experience with the personalities she hopes to join.
She has argued before them, studied their writings and enjoyed personal banter with them. Scalia already has given her a nod of approval, letting on in Senate testimony that he and Justice Stephen Breyer are "both friends of Elena Kagan," then saying in a speech that he is "glad this latest nominee is not a federal judge, and not a judge at all."
But she has much persuading to do before she would take her place among them.
The morning of her nomination, "her brothers were musing about how they always knew she was born to be a great judge," says Kagan's old friend Larry Tribe, who waited outside the East Room doors with Kagan and her brothers and the president and a few others to enter at the appointed time.
"There was a sense of a great, great moment. I said to her, 'Elena, this has got to be one of the greatest days of your life. She said, 'Well, maybe until I take the oath, knock on wood.' "
He and Irving and Marc moved to embrace her, "but she had all this makeup on, so we were not allowed to give a her a hug before she went out," Tribe says.
"She said, 'No! Afterwards, maybe, but not yet.' "
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.