Ever since President Bush nominated David H. Souter to the Supreme Court on Monday, Washington has been blanketed with liberals groping around -- or, more accurately, racing around -- in the dark.
The city's civil rights, civil liberties and women's organizations -- the coalition credited with stopping the 1987 Supreme Court nomination of Robert H. Bork -- have yet to learn enough about the inscrutable Souter to decide where they stand on his nomination. The question is whether they, or anyone, ever will.
The desk of Dawn Johnsen, the 28-year-old legal director of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), looks like something out of Hurricane Hugo. No desk space is visible. Only memos, drafts of memos, lists, lists of lists, all written with the possibly hopeless aim of unveiling Souter's well-guarded soul.
Two lawyers and an intern on her staff were across town in a law library combing through Souter's opinions as a state judge, in search of anything that hints at a view of abortion rights -- even divorce cases, since these could be tip-offs to his attitudes toward women.
Two of her aides have had birthdays in the last two days, but no one has time for parties. "I'm not celebrating," said this day's would-be celebrant, staring into a video display terminal, a cheery basket of flowers and helium balloons presiding, incongruously, over her file cabinet.
Sit for a moment in NARAL's lobby and you will emerge windblown by air currents stirred up as staffers hugging legal pads rush by en route to strategy powwows. Walk down any hall and you will see men and women women eating bag lunches at desks as they read legal papers, monitor the activities of regional affiliates and plan for a national newspaper ad saying, in effect, that Americans have a right to know where Souter stands, because their future may ride on it.
The contrast with how such groups approached the Bork nomination couldn't be greater. Where Bork was a philosophical open book, a scholar who had made public a tome's worth of incendiary views on constitutional issues, Souter is almost a blank slate, except for his conservatism. Where Bork was a target for them to shoot down, with Souter they can't see what -- or whether -- to shoot.
Their goal for now is to persuade the Senate Judiciary Committee to press Souter on questions not comfortably asked of high court nominees -- such as where he stands on a range of constitutional issues -- and, at the same time, to incite voters to tell their senators they expect answers to those questions.
"If the committee really asks the questions I believe should be asked, and he doesn't answer, I think it's legitimate to suggest there's a question about whether he should be confirmed," said Kate Michelman, NARAL's executive director. "Our whole focus now is to ensure those questions are asked."
This pits NARAL and others against none other than the president, who has seized every opportunity to disdain those who would press Souter to reveal matters a high court justice normally saves for official opinions.
The issue of how to pose these questions has engaged leaders of People for the American Way, another mainstay in Washington's coalition of rights groups, in an unending civics seminar.
Melanne Verveer, the group's executive vice president, said this nomination is a test of the political process. What can be done with a nominee about whom little is known, who appears disposed to tell nothing and who, convention dictates, can be pressed for virtually nothing in the way of specific views? She and her group believe Bork's hearings set a new standard for probing a nominee's philosophy. Their preoccupation now is to craft questions that probe deeply without crossing forbidden bounds.
Such efforts are hard to sustain, however, when one's phone never stops ringing. People for the American Way is known for dogged legal research on all federal court nominees, and so reporters have bombarded its officials with queries since Monday. Verveer summarized one representative call: The reporter asked, "Have you found a smoking gun yet?" Verveer said no. The reporter said thank you and hung up.
And to think that the whole scene might have been different -- if no less frenzied -- had Bush gone with his second choice, Edith H. Jones, a federal appeals court judge from Texas who has been on the bench five years, long enough to have a record on numerous constitutional issues. People for the American Way officials, in fact, had anticipated a Jones nomination and were seated in front of a television Monday evening awaiting the nomination, holding voluminous files on her opinions.
Suddenly Bush and Souter appeared and, as one official recalled, "Everyone said, 'That's not Edith. That's a MAN!' " All hands ran for the Souter files, which have been filling up ever since.