Kagan's Keystone Kops

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 29, 2010; 9:25 AM

After three hours, I was afraid that Elena Kagan might pull a Petraeus and faint at the witness table, overcome by all that senatorial hot air.

Really, this was a parody of political preening. These Judiciary Committee gasbags go on and on, let Kagan read an opening statement, and then adjourn for the day?

Not a single question asked?

No wonder people think Washington is a farce.

First, they didn't have to start the hearing at 12:30. But after doing that, how about working past 4 p.m.? You know, like regular employees who have to put in an eight-hour day?

Now imagine if they had let Kagan deliver her statement first. Then they could have used some of their time to react to it, rather than just reciting their staff-written words.

But the cable networks might have broken away sooner, spoiling the senators' brief moment in the spotlight.

Of course, we're only talking about a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court -- the importance of which was underscored Monday when five justices invalidated local laws restricting gun ownership rights. Regardless of what you think of the ruling, isn't the right supposed to be in favor of states' rights over federal preemption?

Which brings me to the Kagan questioning, when it finally gets underway. It will most likely be the "vapid and hollow charade" that a younger Kagan once called Supreme Court nomination hearings.

She will say all the right things about fairness and then, if confirmed, largely vote with the liberal bloc. The same way that John Roberts and Sam Alito largely vote with the conservative bloc. Roberts famously vowed to be an umpire who would call balls and strikes. Once on the bench, he has almost invariably called the game for his team.

No wonder the senators would rather listen to themselves than to the nominee.

Perhaps Commentary's Jennifer Rubin was right when she said on Monday morning: "I'm going to go out on a limb (not really): the confirmation hearings will be dull as dishwater and Elena Kagan will be confirmed easily."

Is the country paying attention? Huffington Post's Sam Stein observes:

"An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released last week showed that 57 percent of Americans either had no idea who Kagan was or weren't sure what to think about her nomination. . . .Kagan, of course, has contributed to the under-the-radar nature of her candidacy -- her resume offering relatively few if any deeply controversial views or compelling storylines."

The Republicans seemed like they were voting on Thurgood Marshall, for whom Kagan once clerked: "In an example of how much the GOP focused on Marshall, his name came up 35 times," TPM reports.

The MSM leads:

"Elena Kagan vowed Monday that if she was confirmed to the Supreme Court, her approach to judging would be 'a modest one' that was 'properly deferential' to Congress and the president -- remarks intended to quell Republican criticism that she is a partisan who would use the court as an instrument to advance a Democratic agenda," says the NYT.

"After more than three hours, Elena Kagan, the solicitor general of the United States, got her chance to speak directly to the panel of senators who will weigh her nomination to be the next Supreme Court justice and promised to do her best and work hard while keeping her mind open to deal with contentious issues," says the LAT.

WSJ: "Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan on Monday sought to counter conservative critics' assertion that she is a liberal activist who would bring a political agenda to the court, promising to respect the 'often messy' democratic process."

Weigel's side

Just about everyone in the blogosphere has had something to say about the Washington Post blogger who resigned Friday after the leak of some of his private e-mails ripping conservatives. Now, on Andrew Breitbart's Big Government site, Dave Weigel has his say. He explains how he is a reporter first and gradually became less conservative -- and he is hard on himself when it comes to the incendiary language he used once admitted to Ezra Klein's left-leaning Journolist:

"I was talking, largely, to liberals who didn't really know conservatives. So I assumed they thought Hugh Hewitt was 'buffoonish.' I said Gingrich had a 'screwed-up tenture' because Republicans I admired, like Sen. Tom Coburn (R, Ok.) and Dick Armey, had serious problems with how Gingrich ran the House.

"But I was cocky, and I got worse. I treated the list like a dive bar, swaggering in and popping off about what was 'really' happening out there, and snarking at conservatives. Why did I want these people to like me so much? Why did I assume that I needed to crack wise and rant about people who, usually for no more than five minutes were getting on my nerves? Because I was stupid and arrogant, and needlessly mean. Yes, I'd trash-talk liberals to Republicans sometimes. And I'd tell them which liberals 'mattered,' who was a hack, who was coming after them. . . .

"Still, this was hubris. It was the hubris of someone who rose -- objectively speaking -- a bit too fast, and someone who misunderstood a few things about his trade. It was also the hubris of someone who thought the best way to be annoyed about something was to do it publicly. . . .

"No serious journalist -- as I want to be, as I am -- should be so rude about the people he covers."

It's not easy to say you were "stupid" and "arrogant" and "mean" -- and those attacking The Post for allowing Weigel to resign might consider his candid self-analysis.

Senator Winfrey?

The Blago trial keeps on giving -- and as the Chicago Tribune reports, tape recordings capture some interesting musings about who the governor would name to Barack Obama's seat:

"The idea of Oprah Winfrey as a U.S. senator may seem far-fetched to many -- among them Rod Blagojevich's one-time chief of staff John Harris. . . .

"While Blagojevich seemed most intrigued by Winfrey's name, Harris told his boss that the idea sounded 'crazy.'

" 'That's where you're wrong,' Blagojevich said.

" 'Oprah, by the way, is not far-fetched,' Blagojevich continued. 'She's up there so high, no one can assail this pick.' "

Talk about a pay cut.

Pumped about Byrd

Amid the touching tributes to Robert Byrd, who died Monday at 92, I have no problem with anyone criticizing his career, such as his early membership in the KKK. But then I came across this excited tweet from onetime GOP presidential candidate Steve Forbes:

"Good news: Financial reform bill may still fail b/c of loss of Byrd vote & 2nd thoughts from Sen Brown"

Stay classy, Steve.

Clinton the cheerleader

It was during the 2008 primaries when Bill Clinton said of candidate Barack Obama, "Give me a break. This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen."

Well, that was then (and his wife was running, after all). Now Clinton has changed his tune:

" 'I think he's done a better job than he's given credit for,' Clinton said. 'I feel very strongly about this.'

"The former president, who, like Obama, saw his polling numbers dip dramatically during his second year in office, said that Obama is not fully 'responsible' for how he is perceived, adding that a dip in approval is 'not avoidable' in an economic downturn. 'Until people feel good about their own lives, they're not going to feel good about their president,' Clinton said. 'And there's nothing you can do about that.'

" 'He is a brilliant, articulate and, I think, an exceedingly empathetic person,' the former president said of Obama."

Hey, he was smart enough to hire a good secretary of state, right?

Praise for generals and diplomats

In the wake of the McChrystal firing, Time's Joe Klein takes his profession to task for covering everything like a game:

"I know journalists are supposed to enjoy contretemps like the firing of Stanley McChrystal. It's news. And better still, it's the sort of news that involves. . . . gossip, as opposed to policy, which is just too damn complicated and boring for too many of my colleagues. But I've gotten to know all of the players here, some quite well. They are extraordinary people, especially the matching sets from the State Department and the Pentagon: the diplomats Karl Eikenberry and Richard Holbrooke; the generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus. They have worked themselves to the point of exhaustion--not for nothing did Petraeus faint at the Armed Services Committee hearing--on an issue that may not have an answer.

"I can understand why they might get testy with each other at times, and make foolish mistakes like the one that cost McChrystal his job. I admire all four as much as any men I've met in 40 years of journalism--not just for the quality of their minds and hearts, but for the relentlessness of their service.

"It seems to me that those of us sitting on the sidelines have perfected the art of schadenfreude in this era when every human tragedy can easily be mistaken for a television show. But I find myself feeling depressed by what happened this week. I can't stand the cheap cynicism, or the political point-scoring, that I hear from too many commentators. War is not the South Carolina primary. The losers die; even the winners are often shattered forever."

All good points. But I'd add that the melodrama eventually led the media to a renewed examination of the Afghan war.

Speaking of McChrystal, Salon's Glenn Greenwald takes on Lara Logan, contrasting my interviews with her and Rolling Stone's Michael Hastings. Watch the videos and decide for yourself.

Strange bedfellows

Hell hath officially frozen over:

"Let us now praise Barack Obama," says Bill Kristol.

"Someone should. The left, weary of the effort in Afghanistan, is uneasy about the appointment of General David Petraeus to replace General Stanley McChrystal -- sensing that this was not the action of a president laying the groundwork for getting out. Conservatives, deeply (and correctly) suspicious of much of the rest of Obama's foreign policy, can't quite bring themselves to believe that the president may actually be doing the right thing.

"But he is."

Of course, the war is the one issue on which many conservatives back the president -- and many liberals are losing patience with him.

In McCain's corner

It's not wildly enthusiastic, but National Review backs the GOP's 2008 presidential nominee:

"That this magazine has not always agreed with Sen. John McCain's judgments is an understatement. For a few years at the start of the decade, not an issue went by, it seemed, without our feeling obligated to criticize the Arizona Republican. That conservatives in his state should be in the market for a senator who agrees with them more consistently is not remarkable.

"But there are three considerations that militate against dumping McCain for his primary challenger, former congressman J. D. Hayworth. The first is that McCain has usually been on the conservative side of national controversies. . . .

"Second, when McCain is right he can have a terrific impact. McCain has a credibility on national security that few other Republicans can match. . . .

"If McCain had a different challenger, we might think differently. But, taken together, these considerations move us to suggest that Arizona Republicans nominate Senator McCain."

Talk about ick

The University of Chicago's Martha Nussbaum says she never used the phrase "the ick factor" in referring to gay marriage, as Mike Huckabee recently claimed in explaining his own use of the term:

"Mr. Huckabee has gotten bad information about my work and has completely turned its meaning upside down, imputing to me a position (that gays and lesbians are disgusting) that I criticize as childish and morally deficient. He owes me a public apology."

A Sawyer postscript

In my Monday piece on how Diane Sawyer is reshaping "World News," some readers objected to my describing an early morning scene where she came to the office, sans makeup and in plain clothing, looking like "a 64-year-old housewife in need of a cup of coffee." I intended it as a compliment -- that she showed up in the newsroom and dove into work without bothering to glam up for the staff -- and I'm told she took it that way.


"Icelandic Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir has married her long-term partner, her office said on Monday, making her the world's first national leader with a same-sex spouse."

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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