I'm following the confirmation battles surrounding Samuel Alito's nomination to the US Supreme Court with more than the usual interest. He was just a class ahead of me in law school, and won the moot court competition the year before I did. His nomination has rekindled my mother's hopes that President Bush will recognize the need for a Jewish strict constructionist to balance the two liberal Jews on the Court.
I didn't know Alito in law school, and we would have been unlikely friends if I had. I was probably the last guy in my class still wearing bell-bottoms, and could not figure out what was happening when classmates started slipping into three-piece suits for interviews with corporate firms. Alito probably wore suits in college (in the late '60s mind you), or at least cuffed pants and button-down shirts.
The more I read about the guy, however, the more I feel my loss that I did not know him. Even the liberal members of his class quoted by The New York Times - some of whom were friends of mine - cannot say enough good things about him: unfailingly polite, a good listener, fun to argue with, razor sharp but completely unpretentious. His rumpled suits, unfashionably short socks that reveal his calves when he crosses his legs (thanks to the Times for catching that pertinent detail), modest house in Trenton, penchant for rushing out of the federal courthouse in Philadelphia dressed in his Little League manager's uniform, and lifetime in public service all endear him to me. And the traditional Catholic that Alito has always been appeals to the traditional Jew I have become.
Alito's biography (Princeton, Yale Law) and that of the recently confirmed Chief Justice John Roberts (Harvard College, Harvard Law) led me to reflect on the very different socialization of conservatives and liberals on elite campuses. The former spend their entire educational careers as a small minority surrounded by people whose political views - and often their social mores - differ sharply from their own.
Because of their minority status it is far more difficult for conservative students to entertain the illusion that all smart people think like them. They are exposed to many obviously bright young men and women whose opinions on almost every issue vary radically from their own.
True, some conservative students tend to band together as a beleaguered minority, taking on the characteristics of a secret society. But neither Roberts nor Alito appears to have been like that. Even when working in a very conservative Office of White House Counsel in the Reagan years, Alito never confined his social life to "movement" types, and had an instinctive aversion to the more radical legal arguments advanced by fire-breathing colleagues.
Being forced to recognize that there are different points of view helps make bright young conservatives such good debaters. They learn early on the limited persuasiveness of shouting at someone with whom they disagree, "You're an idiot." Of necessity they have to develop the ability to cast their arguments in ways that appeal to those starting from very different premises.
Roberts was by general consensus the outstanding appellate advocate of his generation. Alito also had an distinguished record in oral arguments before the Supreme Court and garnered accolades from lawyers on the other side.
Alito's prose style is prosaic in the extreme, and his judicial opinions invariably lay out the opposing viewpoint, and the arguments to support it, in painstaking detail, before explaining where he begs to differ. At least one liberal commentator in The New Republic argued that Alito's humble, respectful style makes him far more dangerous than Justice Scalia or Justice Thomas, because he is more likely to fashion consensus positions with more liberal justices.
LIBERALS CAN be wonderful people, and boon companions, but they often have a hard time dealing with people of opposing views - especially when they cannot dismiss them out of hand as idiots. Too often they have spent their entire adult lives surrounded almost entirely by those who think just like them, and it comes naturally to dismiss those of other views as intellectually or morally challenged. In short, they share some of the cult-like traits of the Israeli Supreme Court.
Martin Peretz, editor-in-chief of The New Republic and a Harvard professor, describes what it is like to say a kind word about George Bush - e.g., "He seems to have completely transcended the biases of gender and race in his appointments" - in liberal Cambridge: "[M]y wife treats me as if I am a bit ill. My children [grown] are reluctant to introduce me to their pals. My phone stops ringing except when there are nasty people on the other end. I get snubbed at dinner parties, or don't get invited at all." His tongue is only slightly in cheek.
Having twice betrayed the class of my youth - once by becoming Orthodox and later by growing more politically conservative - I've experienced a lot of this sort of thing. My best friend from freshman year in college, with whom I once shared a youthful passion for Camus, bluntly informed me that he could not bear to receive any further communications from anyone who believes in God. Both he and his wife are medical-school professors.
Recently I sent my first update in nearly 30 years to the Yale Law Magazine. As it happens, the editor of the notes for my class was one of my favorite people in law school, and even attended my wedding. He responded enthusiastically to my first e-mail discussing my post-graduation successes - "most children and least money earned, thus confirming common stereotypes of poor people." And he even took in good humor an old Post piece about a confrontation with a Chabad mitzva mobile while in law school.
But when I mentioned that I found something unseemly about the rush to kill off Terri Schiavo, or perhaps it was my enthusiasm for invading Iraq, things degenerated quickly. In the flurry of e-mails that followed, I learned that the factual record in the Schiavo case was a good deal more ambiguous than I had thought; he is, after all, a law-school dean. But even this admission did not lessen the heat.
I tried to change the subject to something more neutral like Jane Austen's sad love life or Leonardo da Vinci's genius, but my friend wasn't having any of it. At the end of a lengthy and hurried exchanged of e-mails, I asked him to send me some of his best legal writing. He wrote back curtly that he would have to think about it. Apparently I was not deemed worthy because I did not hear anything more.
That exchange left me deeply saddened. But I did begin to see the advantages of being a member of a tiny minority - always a useful thing for a Jew.