Let me begin by saying: wow! And let me expand on that by saying: wow! The confirmation of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court is the best thing to happen to the conservative movement in a very long time. Today, just for one day, we may be forgiven for patting ourselves on the back.
In this mood, I decided to celebrate — and review two decades of history — by telling myself jokes. A man comes to the doctor, not feeling so well; doctor orders a battery of tests. The patient sits nervously awaiting the results until the doctor finally arrives. “I have good news and bad news,” says the doctor. “Which do you want first?” The fellow chooses to hear the good stuff first, build up a resistance to the bad. “The good news is: they’re going to name the disease after you!”
That was the story of Robert Bork, one of this nation’s great jurists, who was nominated by President Reagan in 1987 to sit on the Supreme Court. He thought that he would get the job, with the Senate hearings merely a formality. Instead, People for the American Way got their paws on him, and Ted Kennedy drowned him in rhetoric. He was not confirmed and was sent slouching toward irrelevance. The process of destroying a nominee in a Senate hearing by hysterical hyperbole became known as “borking.”
Next joke: two Jews, not very devout, are out walking their dogs on a sunny Saturday morning instead of attending services. When they pass the synagogue, they get a whiff of delicious food: there’s a bar-mitzvah today! They decide to crash the party. Only problem is that dogs are not admitted. “We have sunglasses, we’ll play blind and get in,” says Abe. Irv watches in awe as Abe strides right past the attendant. So he tries the same thing but gets stopped. “Surely you’re not using a Chihuahua as a seeing-eye?” the attendant protests. But Irv can think on his feet.
“Is that what they gave me?” he asks, looking startled.
The equivalent occurred when Reagan and the first Bush then tried to slip in some sleepers. Anthony Kennedy was given Bork’s vacated slot (after a judge named Ginsberg had to withdraw because he once smoked marijuana; this was before that became a prerequisite for presidential aspirants). Then David Souter was selected by George H. W. Bush. Both of these Chihuahuas gained confirmation but provided precious little assistance with advancing the conservative vision of Constitutional interpretation.
Another jest: an oldster hits the century mark and the reporters crowd around to hear the secret of his longevity. Well, the codger lectures, it’s all attributable to his regimen of eating three balanced meals a day, walking two miles, and sleeping eight hours. “But my father did the same thing and he died at age seventy,” one journo grumbles. The centenarian was not flustered. “Isn’t it obvious? He didn’t keep at it long enough.”
And so the conservatives kept plugging, winning the small ones but losing the big ones. They identified likeminded judges early in their careers and encouraged their advancement. Many were able to squeeze into appeals courts and district courts during the years that Reagan and Bush I were the nominators. Everyone kept their noses clean, avoided radical confrontations and hysterical proclamations.
Next chuckler: a couple is ready to celebrate their twenty-fifth anniversary. The husband offers his beloved a choice between a fur coat and a new car to mark the occasion. Instead, she shocks him by demanding a divorce. “Sorry,” he responds. “That’s a little out of my price range.”
This is what happened to conservative senators in the Clinton and Bush II administrations. They used a sporting strategy of giving Bill Clinton his Supreme Court appointments without a great deal of hassle. Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg skated through smoothly, like a cigar out of its wrapper. Expecting reciprocal courtesy when the younger Bush took office, the Senate stalwarts were shocked when the Democrats rewarded them by inventing the judicial filibuster.
Last guffaw: a fellow comes home from work, finds his wife crying bitterly in the kitchen. She explains that for the first time in many months, she had decided to cook their dinner herself. But when she left the kitchen for a few minutes to get dressed, the dog pulled the food out of the oven and ate it all. The husband coos understandingly and gently consoles her.
“Don’t worry, honey, I’ll buy you a new dog.”
Yep, there’s your happy ending. The Democrats called too much attention to themselves with the filibuster tactic. That lovely dinner they were cooking for the left-wing extremist groups was gulped down by the dog, namely their actual constituents. They didn’t like the taste very much and the game was up. So that sense of humor that conservatives developed as a survival mechanism came in handy when they got to laugh last. And in conclusion allow me to say: wow!