Why tonight? And is Edith Clement a bluff?

The White House won't be Borked again.

Published July 19, 2005 6:56PM (EDT)

Much has been said about the timing of George W. Bush's Supreme Court announcement: Virtually every media outlet in Washington has a "Republican strategist" with "close ties to the White House" acknowledging that Bush has moved up his schedule for announcing his nominee to take the spotlight off the Valerie Plame investigation.

The strategy is working, for now at least. On what was a slow news day in Plameland anyway, TV's talking heads have moved entirely into speculation centered on Edith Clement -- goodbye, Joe Wilson! hello, Jeffrey Toobin! -- and Wednesday morning's newspapers will surely lead with the news of Bush's announcement. You can't blame the media, exactly. Whatever one may think about White House media manipulation, you can't deny that a Supreme Court nomination is front-page news, whenever it comes.

But there's another aspect of Bush's timing that deserves a little mention, too. It was pretty clear at Bush's press conference with Australia's prime minister this morning that Bush had made up his mind: He didn't say he was still thinking about his choice; he said he'd let the press know "when I'm ready to tell you who it is." A short time later, Scott McClellan said that the president had, in fact, made his decision.

So why wait until 9 p.m. EDT to announce the news? Here's one reason. The right takes it as a matter of faith that Democrats were able to block Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court in 1987 because they were able to define the nominee before the Republicans could do it first. As the Washington Post recounted the story the other day, Ronald Reagan made his announcement, and Ted Kennedy was delivering a "blistering" critique of the nominee on the Senate floor just 45 minutes later. "Robert Bork's America," Kennedy said, "is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens' doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of government."

Bork was branded out of the box, and the Senate ultimately rejected his nomination, 58-42. Bush doesn't want that to happen again, obviously, and naming his nominee at the end of the day may help prevent it. While Democrats can still get a few shots in before newspaper reporters run up against their deadlines tonight, they can't build up a day's worth of complaints in just a few minutes. Wednesday morning's headlines will necessarily focus on the fact of the nomination, not the Democrats' response to it. The news will be new; there will be no need to "freshen" it with a lot of reaction.

"Yes, but," you might be saying, "didn't you just say that the talking heads on TV are already pontificating about the pros and cons of Edith Clement?" Well, yes, we did. And not to be too contrarian about it, but maybe we should all take a breath before assuming that Clement is the one. If the White House wants to keep its opponents off guard, what better way than to have everyone talking for a day about the wrong nominee?

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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