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The Radical Did Not Go Out With Elena Kagan, But Other Ivy League Grads Did: This Week On The Elitist Supreme Court

May 15, 2010, 6:21 pm

Last night when Jim Lehrer asked David Brooks and Mark Shields, “How do you see the Elena Kagan nomination now? It’s over a week,” this Radical moved to the edge of her seat. Which commenter was going to say the L word first?

No, no, not liberal.

Instead, after the normal reassurances that Kagan will be confirmed, just try to find something wrong with her, she was a good dean, she has no opinions about anything, blah, blah, blah, suddenly Shields and Brooks went on a tirade about SCOTUS being an elitist institution. (What, you thought it was a good thing that the highest court in the land was peopled with the best legal minds in the land? Think again, mister. Or sister.)

From the transcript:

MARK SHIELDS: I have to tell you, I mean, I am so tired of Ivy Leaguers. I really am. I want somebody who went to a state university, who didn’t grow up in the Eastern time zone, who worked nights, maybe, to pay for their own books, who either was in the enlisted ranks in the United States military or knows somebody who was, somebody who just really didn’t — is west of the Hudson, and east of Malibu.

MARK SHIELDS: There’s a great country out there with an awful lot of people in it, and maybe somebody who went to night school once. I mean, why do we — why do we restrict it to this pool that — you know, I really just think it is terribly elitist. I mean, it sounds like the British ruling class.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, Mark and I should be happy that it’s all Catholics and Jews on the court now.

JIM LEHRER: You guys are covered. That’s easy for you to say.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: Personally, I’m the only New York Jew not on the court, so I’m a little pissed off about that.

But I actually agree with Mark. I think the politics of it are bad, by the way, for exactly that reason. People look at it, oh, another Harvard Law. And, you know, they’re very smart people and they’re very fine people. But it is true that it would be nice to have somebody from the heartland of the Midwest, you know, Chicago, for example.

No, I’m just kidding.


(Editor’s note: David Brooks went to the University of Chicago, something his audience is rarely allowed to forget for more than a day at a time.)

DAVID BROOKS: No, I agree — I agree with Mark, somebody, you know — it is — and this is true, by the way, of the Obama administration in general. There’s a lot of Harvard and Yale there up and down the ranks. And it is a narrow slice of America.

MARK SHIELDS: When Lyndon Johnson was just absolutely rhapsodizing about how brilliant Jack Kennedy’s Cabinet, President Jack Kennedy’s Cabinet was, Sam Rayburn — you know, there were all these Ivy League pedigrees and everything else — Sam Rayburn said, “I just wish one of them had ever run for sheriff, Lyndon.”

Well, I just wish somebody had run for sheriff who was nominated to the Supreme Court, who had been out in the political process and put their name on the ballot.

I’ve got a good idea: what about Harriet Miers? Didn’t she run for sheriff or something?

I mean, please David and Mark. Elena Kagan did not grow up in a bubble, she grew up on the Upper West Side when it actually wasn’t such a tidy place as it is now. Remember the 1970s in New York guys? Furthermore, unlike her male peers, if Kagan hadn’t been so out of control smart and hard-working she wouldn’t have gotten a chance at anything, especially not that Princeton B.A. In case you think being in the right eating club separated her from reality, it is also relevant that except for Elena and her father, everyone in the Kagan family is a public school teacher, and Kagan herself went to public school prior to college.

But let’s look at the rest of this elitist court. Granted, John Roberts and Anthony Kennedy have very suspicious credentials. But Sonia Sotomayor’s single, working mother got her through school at the top of her class so that she could be plucked out of the crowd to go to Princeton. And if you are thinking affirmative action, just stuff it, will you? Any of us who actually work in elitist institutions know perfectly well that people of color and women, in order to be even eligible for affirmative action, have had to be better, smarter and more hard working than anyone else.

Let’s look at that consummate elitist Clarence Thomas, who was abandoned by his father, had a mother was too poor to keep him, and was raised by his working class grandparents. His grandfather hauled ice and coal for a living: there’s a soft life. Or let’s take a gander at Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was turned down for a Supreme Court clerkship in 1960 because she was a woman (and was also, as a woman, treated abominably by Harvard Law School, as all women were until well into the 1970s.) I suppose it couldn’t matter less that Antonin Scalia’s father immigrated from Sicily, and worked his way through college and graduate school. Scalia only went to a parochial high school because he was on scholarship and, as an Italian-American of a certain generation, was also probably the object of horrible discrimination (despite being valedictorian of his class, he was not admitted to Princeton.)

In other words, when working- and middle-class people work hard, and are recognized for their success by being welcomed into the nation’s top schools, we should probably pass them over for positions of public trust and leadership. I cannot help but think that this sudden concern about SCOTUS being packed with pampered, out-of-touch elitists has something to do with the fact that Obama has now nominated two women in a row. As always, when too many women show up, deep concerns about declining quality suddenly emerge: this is perhaps the most twisted version of that conversation I have yet heard, and from two men who should know better. And readers — can you really imagine a woman or a person of color being nominated for the Court who did not have a top-drawer Ivy League resume?

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