BOSTON -- In chapter one of The Mystery of David Souter, we watched assorted senators, journalists and advocates desperately seeking a paper trail to the nominee's legal mind-set. These first-rate public eyes barely turned up enough scraps to mark the path to his New Hampshire farmhouse.
Now we are into chapter two, in which the very same detectives are sifting for clues in his biography instead of his bibliography. They have thus far come up with a list of Souter adjectives attached to Souter anecdotes. The nominee for the Supreme Court is: book-loving, outdoorsy, thrifty, funny, stoical, silent, humble, hard-working, religious, monastic.
Alas, so far these words have done little to resolve the mystery of its main character. Indeed they have introduced a subplot: David Souter, intellect or nerd? Scholar or dweeb?
But what intrigues me most in this chapter is what the public eyes are making of what is missing. I'm not talking about the absence of a legal record. I'm talking about the absence of a family, or at least a wife and children.
In the past week, a New York Times editorial asked the question: ''Does his bachelor life isolate him from routine human problems, as some suggest, or free him to philosophize and climb his beautiful mountains?'' A prominent lawyer asked out loud about Souter's life experience, saying, ''This is a man who has never been married, never had children.'' And more than one friend has quietly asked whether a solitary man has the understanding of real life, especially real family life, real female life, to certify the humanity behind his judgments.
What is going on here? A revival of singles suspicion? A return to the days when public figures needed a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval?
In the not-so-old-days, it seems to me, it was conservatives who used to draw character conclusions about family life. A single man, never married or worse yet, divorced, was cast as a potentially unstable sort of fellow. Indeed, when Adlai Stevenson ran for president in the '50s, many Americans were uncomfortable with the idea of a man alone in the White House. To be married with kids was to be settled down and safe.
But in the '90s, the concerns about David Souter's status aren't about instability. They're about rigidity. And they're not coming from conservatives. They're coming from liberals.
As Harvard Law School's provocative Duncan Kennedy muses, ''It would be a delicious and amusing twist in the play between liberal and conservatives, if the liberals started proclaiming that only a married man with 2.3 children living in a suburb was qualified for office.''
It hasn't come to that quite yet. By and large, the interest in Souter's private life is a way of trying to figure out just who this masked man is. The women's movement slogan -- the personal is political -- has become an accepted truth. We try to draw lines from private life to public matters. But I wonder whether there also isn't a new set of assumptions, even biases, against people who are Unmarried With No Children.
That huge baby-boom generation that came late to family has come to it fiercely and fervently. Parenthood is in. It's now seen not only as a matter of biology but of character. Child-raising builds a better you.
Remember back in March, when Kathleen Sullivan lost her job to Paula Zahn? The producer of ''CBS This Morning'' said that the real difference between the two women was that ''Paula's married with a child.'' The intimation was that motherhood rounded the edges, gave a gal that warm and wiggily projection.
More than one episode of ''thirtysomething,'' more than one article by a baby boomer revolve around the theme that nobody really knows what life is all about until he or she been through a 2 a.m. feeding.
I, too, believe that marriage and children in their complicated, messy dailiness are transforming experiences. You can't be a hero to your spouse. Changing diapers isn't abstract. Parenting teenagers is an exercise in moral relativism. We want judges who understand people as well as precedent.
But it's getting a bit weird when you need a spouse and kids for the re'sume'.
In this chapter of The Mystery of David Souter, they are trotting out old girlfriends and the crew from his mother's retirement home as character witnesses to prove he's human despite being unwed. Guess what? You can be humane and unwed, a creep and a dad. Even in the '90s.
Dearly beloved, we have gathered here to look for a justice, not a husband. As any good counselor knows, what's most important is to find out what he thinks before we say, ''I do.''