January 14, 2006
Inside the Alito Hearings: Political Performance Art Up Close
Milling around during a break in the hearings on Wednesday, just after Mrs. Alito left in tears
I took a few pictures on Wednesday when I had the opportunity to sit in on the Alito hearings, and I’ve been thinking of how best to describe the atmosphere inside the wood-panelled walls.
The room is much smaller than it appears on television. Dominated by the marble-covered wall behind the Senators, it is a cold, yet oddly intimate room. Television also elongates the distance between the Senators and the nominee. They are, in fact, quite close to each other. The short distance between them filled with camera-men.
Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS)
The room is aesthetically discordant, reeking of the Hart Building’s ’70’s era decor, surrounded by the stately architecture of the other Capitol Hill buildings. On either side of the main hearing room, the wood paneling rolls up to reveal side-rooms where the media line up their cameras.
Senator John Cornyn (R-TX)
Directly behind the nominee are the long card-tables where the print media plug in their lap-tops. When one of the Senators referred to an article written that morning by Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, complete with a posterboard-sized reproduction of a quote from his story, I saw several of his female collegues poke Dana laughingly.
What was it that I was watching? I wondered. A return to the ancient forum, the air scented with blood-lust? Maybe. But that doesn’t quite capture the sense of high-stakes strategy represented by the chairs behind each Senator crowded with high-octane attorney-advisors. Politics ain’t bean-bag. Some have been calling it a Star Chamber, but with all the cameras rolling, this is open warfare, strategic manuevering for a nation to follow. A fellow watcher murmurs the observation that it apears to be a chess game. Maybe. But, as one commenter here noted, this is far more than a game.
Finally, I woke this morning thinking of a book that I had enjoyed very much initially, but never finished. The main story line was gripping, but the author spent so much time wandering off into the sub-stories, that I lost interest.
Senator Joe Biden (D-DE)
The Democratic strategy in the Alito hearings strikes me much the same way. There is a gripping central story of an impressive and formidable nominee — a man of character and integrity, admired by his colleagues, respected by acquaintances, liked by his friends and clearly loved by his family.
But the Democrats are determined to pursue, and develop in the public’s perception, sub-stories in an attempt to diminish him. CAP, Vanguard, strip-searches and privacy rights. . .
Later in the week, we hear that the excerpt from a CAP-published article that Senator Kennedy has been berating Judge Alito with was actually a sophomoric attempt at satire. Kennedy doesn’t care; he’s just throwing the spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks.
Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL)
And then, the hearings draw to a close and the Democrats start pushing their stall tactic. Chairman Specter and Senator Leahy toss back and forth at one another, bitingly, over next week’s schedule. Until, at last, Leahy says to Specter: “You and I will talk about it over the weekend.”
The cameras, whirring and clicking, memorializing the slightest movements of the protagonists, are the key. The real horse-trading will be done “over the weekend” over dinner, behind closed doors. These hearings in front of the cameras are about something else entirely: this is political performance art.
At its finest. And worst.
The Witness Returns: Judge Alito seated in the center; Mrs. Alito just behind in the tweed jacket
Cross-posted at frcblog.com.