Barrett was dressed quietly and soberly in an espresso-colored dress. The flags were a high-decibel declaration that Trump’s controversial rush to put forward a nominee after Americans have begun casting their ballots in this election cycle is not a matter of partisanship or politics, bullying or narcissism. It’s patriotism. And there it is in its full telegenic flush.
And yet, when Trump stepped to the lectern to introduce Barrett, before he acknowledged the legacy of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose seat his nominee will fill if she is approved by the Senate, he could not resist making note of his own streak of influence. “I stand before you today to fulfill one of my highest and most important duties under the United States Constitution: the nomination of a Supreme Court justice. This is my third such nomination.”
Barrett is his Ginsburg, he would have the country believe, even if Barrett is a textualist and the polar opposite of the liberal icon in judicial philosophy. And Trump gamely talked her up. Barrett graduated first in her law school class at Notre Dame, the president boasted. A law professor, he said, once gave her a letter of recommendation that simply read: “Amy Coney is the best student I ever had.”
Barrett arrived at the White House with her husband, Jesse, and their seven children. The president extolled her motherhood as if it was another bullet point on her resume, which is so often the case when it comes to professional women. He reeled off specifics: two of her children were adopted from Haiti, another has Down syndrome. “If confirmed, Justice Barrett will make history as the first mother of school-age children ever to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.” What is one to make of that odd speck of a data point? She won’t be the first mother of school-age children with a terribly demanding or influential job. And she most certainly won’t be the first parent of school-age children on the court.
No, Barrett herself is not groundbreaking. But the circumstances of her nomination are certainly unprecedented.
She is the peg who fits the hole. A conservative. A woman. A conservative woman who may be willing to overturn Roe v. Wade. For certain Republican senators, that’s all that really seems to matter, because more than one suggested earlier that they planned to support the president’s nominee even before that nominee was announced.
In her remarks, Barrett paid tribute to the late Justice Antonin Scalia for whom she clerked. She honored Ginsburg, too. Then she talked about her passion for mothering and driving the carpool and planning birthday parties. And certainly if her rough sketch of her home life is accurate, she is a lovely neighbor and an attentive mom. But she has not been nominated to the school board.
Nonetheless, Republicans have already begun referring to Barrett as ACB or Notorious ACB, in an echo of the Notorious RBG moniker that liberals bestowed on Ginsburg because of her powerful dissents and her history-making work tearing down laws that enforced gender discrimination. Barrett’s nomination process may well go down in history as notorious. And if she is confirmed, she may build a distinguished legacy. But at the moment, she is merely the peg the Republicans needed posthaste.
Barrett is 48. That would make her the youngest justice. In almost any other realm, her relative youthfulness would be an advantage. That’s the way it works with women. They typically don’t age into greatness; they age out of it. But Ginsburg, the woman she would replace, set a new standard. Her gravitas was part of her power. Her age, 87, spoke to her experience and wisdom. She was distinguished — a grand word that all too often is reserved for men in the winter of their lives.
As she accepted the nomination, Barrett said: “At the start of our marriage, I imagined that we would run our household as partners. As it has turned out, Jesse does far more than his share of the work. To my chagrin, I learned at dinner recently that my children consider him to be the better cook.” It was a notable anecdote because Ginsburg’s husband, Marty, was well known for being her most avid supporter, for taking care of the home front, and for being the preferred cook in their family of four.
The ability of Barrett to excel in her legal career, the very need for Jesse to take on the lion’s share of the household duties, is because Ginsburg’s work allowed Barrett to soar. It allowed women to have choices and make them freely. And one worries that Barrett will be part of a conservative majority that will revoke those freedoms.
Trump may get his third nominee confirmed. He may call doing so his constitutional obligation. And he may wrap himself in self-serving patriotism. But beyond the confines of the Rose Garden, the flags continue to fly at half-staff for Ginsburg.