I'm reminded of a rosy-eyed kid who refused to have his optimism dampened by the fact that all he got for his birthday was a pile of manure.
"Somewhere under this pile," the kid was certain, "there's got to be a pony."
Well, I've been looking at the fallout from President Reagan's attempt to fill the last vacancy on the Supreme Court, and I keep thinking: somewhere under this pile, there's got to be a lesson for America.
I confess I haven't found it yet.
The lessons for the president and his aides are obvious enough: don't pick unnecessary political fights unless you're certain you can win them. Don't bet your political life on people you don't know. Don't use highly respected governmental institutions as instruments of political vengeance. Don't make the same mistake twice in rapid succession.
But what of the nagging worry that the double whammy of Robert Bork and Douglas Ginsburg, not to mention dozens of other public officials who have found themselves subjects of humiliating probes into their personal lives, will make it unnecessarily difficult to attract good people into public service?
Supposing it is true, what can we do about it? What lessons can be drawn? Should a journalist who learns some embarrassing fact about a candidate for high office suppress that information? No. Should the decision to suppress or not suppress be influenced by the journalist's overall assessment of the candidate's worthiness? Still, no. Should professionals whose job it is to discover and report the news take into account that their reports might make life more difficult for decent people, or even for the government? No, yet again.
So what are the lessons for journalists? None that I can see.
Likewise with the general public. It's reasonable to argue that awkward facts must be viewed in context, that the disclosure of personal flaws should be just another piece of information to be considered and that they should not necessarily disqualify anyone for public service.
But it wasn't public outrage over Ginsburg's pot-smoking confession that kept him off the high court. It was the sense of betrayal felt by his supporters. The public, for all anyone knows, was perfectly willing to judge the marijuana use in context.
I don't see any lessons for the public.
It's hard to see any hard-and-fast lessons for prospective officials themselves. Of course any candidate for high office must expect to have his life held under a magnifying glass. Any misdeed that is on the public record or that is likely to come out during the intense scrutiny that, say, Supreme Court nominees are subject to must be revealed and confronted. But what of those misdeeds that have escaped official notice?
That is the reason for the catch-all, is-there-anything-in-your-background question that nominees for high office are routinely asked. But what's the right answer? Suppose Ginsburg had gotten away with a hit-and-run accident a decade ago. Should he have owned up to having left the scene? The pragmatic answer is: not unless he thought there was a chance that someone would recognize him from a newspaper photo and put the finger on him. Having risen to the office of federal appeals judge without his pot-smoking episodes coming to light, Ginsburg must have thought himself safe. And when he discovered that he wasn't safe after all, he was forthright in his confession. No matter; it was too late.
The temptation to draw lessons from the Ginsburg affair is strong because it comes on the heels of the rejection of judge Bork for the same Supreme Court seat. But the lessons -- at least of the sort we're looking for -- simply aren't there.
The fact is that the Ginsburg nomination was dead even without the pot-smoking business. The man, however bright, simply had too many strikes against him: at least the appearance of conflict of interest (involving his cable TV dealings), misleading answers to questions (his pro bono record and his courtroom experience) and the limited nature of his judicial record -- and too little against which to balance those flaws. A distinguished jurist with a long history of solid judicial experience might have overcome disclosures of youthful marijuana use. The 41-year-old Ginsburg, a stranger to the public, simply hadn't had time to build that kind of record.
But won't his withdrawal, following on the heels of the Senate's rejection of Bork, make it difficult to fill the Supreme Court vacancy?
Not at all. There's no shortage of eminently qualified conservative jurists for the job, including federal appeals court judge Anthony Kennedy of Sacramento, who will probably get it.
The key lesson of the Bork-Ginsburg episode is for President Reagan: it's time to turn off those Reagan Revolution zealots who are spoiling for political warfare and start listening to those advisers who are concerned about his diminishing ability to run the country.