What are the most important qualifications for a Supreme Court justice? Certainly legal experience, intellect, physical and mental energy, a degree of compassion (but not so much as to alarm Ed Meese) and the willingness to keep an open mind. Of these qualifications let me address myself to the latter and nominate Laurence Silberman to the Supreme Court. He's a man who's not afraid to admit he's wrong.
Silberman, a Reagan administration appointee to the U.S. court of appeals, is one of those being mentioned as a Supreme Court nominee. He is experienced, having served in the Nixon administration's Labor and Justice departments, was ambassador to Yugoslavia and is a judicial conservative. He opposes affirmative action, which, almost by itself, is enough to commend him to the Meese Justice Department. Normally, he would not be a man after my own heart, but given that a conservative of some type is going to be nominated for the Supreme Court, my man is Silberman.
Our tale begins when Silberman was nominated in 1985 to the appeals court. During his confirmation hearings, it was revealed that Silberman was a member of the private Metropolitan Club. For much of its 124 years, the club refused to admit blacks, Jews or women, but after admitting some blacks and Jews it could bring itself no further into the 20th century. It still does not admit women.
Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) gave Silberman a choice: either remain a member of the Metropolitan Club or become an appeals court judge -- not both. Silberman chose the bench and reluctantly resigned his membership. With a lot less reluctance, I dashed to the keyboard and let Silberman have it. Would he belong to a club that barred blacks? I asked. If not, then why are women different? Don't women suffer discrimination also, and if that's the case, then what kind of example is set by membership in a club that discriminates on the basis of sex? "What's true of racism is also true of sexism," I wrote. "It, too, has its victims."
Several days later, I went to a mammoth cocktail party. A woman approached with her hand out. I took it and she introduced herself as Rosalie Silberman, Laurence's wife. With that, she excoriated me. I had vilified a good and decent man, a man who had given much of his life to public service with all the attendant financial sacrifices. I tried to free my hand, but to no avail. She continued. I had taken a trivial matter and blown it way out of proportion. Her husband was no sexist. With that, she let go of my hand and walked away.
For Washington, this was an extraordinary incident. The rules of this town state that no one is ever to be held socially accountable at night for what he does during the day. This enables journalists such as myself to socialize with politicians and government officials we have abused, sometimes fairly. Without this rule, Washington could not function and its catering industry would collapse. It does leave someone like myself, though, with the uneasy feeling that nothing really matters. As much as I would like to be judged by my friends, I would also like to be judged by my enemies.
Rosalie Silberman broke the Washington Rule. Here was a woman -- a member of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission -- whose defense of her husband was not only sincere, but passionate -- although wrong to my way of thinking. I left the party a bit shaken, but also shaking my head with admiration. Silberman himself has a reputation for bluntness, but clearly this is a shared family trait. In an era before computer dating, the Silbermans somehow managed to find each other.
The next morning, the phone rang. It was Silberman. He started to say something (an apology, perhaps?), but I cut him off. A wonderful woman, I said. She stood up for you. A real fighter. Yes, he agreed. Wonderful, a fighter -- but wrong. That's what he wanted to say. His wife had been wrong. He had been wrong. He had read my column and found it persuasive. He had rethought his position. He should not have belonged to a club that discriminates against women.
That is my tale of Laurence Silberman -- him and his wife, actually. We all tend to attribute wisdom to someone with whom we agree, but that is not the point. The point, instead, is that here is someone who is not afraid to say he was wrong. Diogenes, the original cynic, is said to have searched Athens for an honest man. In Washington, his challenge would be to find one with an open mind. Rosalie Silberman could help him. She has one at home.