Alito hearing: Day One is over, and not a minute too soon

Was the nominee pained by the pontificating or just bored by the proceedings?

Published January 9, 2006 9:29PM (EST)

Samuel Alito may well be confirmed by the U.S. Senate -- for what it's worth, we say he cruises through with more than 60 votes in favor of confirmation -- but it won't be because he charmed the pants off of anyone during his confirmation hearing.

Day One has just ended, and it wasn't exactly scintillating. Early in the day, we thought Alito looked like he was pained by all the pontificating going on around him. Now we're beginning to wonder if he wasn't just bored. Not that the nominee helped matters any. When the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee finally stopped talking and it came time for Alito to speak, the man who is supposed to be bringing "a lot of class" to the Supreme Court came off like somebody the Rotary Club of Trenton, N.J., probably wouldn't invite back for a second appearance.

Like any good luncheon speaker, Alito began with a joke. At least, it was supposed to be a joke. In Alito's telling, it became more of a lesson in how not to tell a joke. Short version: Judge asks lawyer how he came to be standing before the Supreme Court, lawyer says, "I took the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad." Long version: If he hadn't been sitting for a few hours already, Alito would probably still be telling it.

Alito then moved -- like John G. Roberts, without notes, but unlike John G. Roberts, without much grace or wit -- to the other points he wanted to make: He learned a lot from his parents and the good, common-sense folks in the town where he grew up; he understands that a practicing attorney works for his clients but that a judge "can't have an agenda"; he thinks it's important for judges to keep an open mind; and he was serious when he took his oath of office as an appellate judge 15 years ago, and he'd be serious if he gets to take the oath again as an associate justice of the Supreme Court.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter said early in the proceedings that judicial nominees answer just as many questions as they think they need to answer in order to get confirmed. If the same sort of math applies to opening statements, Alito must figure that he doesn't have to say much of anything to win a seat on the Supreme Court. Either that, or the "murder board" team that has prepped Alito for this hearing -- worried that the nominee might lose his cool under tough questioning -- has smothered any spark of life out of the man.

As Alito finished his speech and made his way out of the hearing room, it was hard to spot many of those back-slapping, "job well done" smiles you usually see at the conclusion of these things. Maybe that's because Alito hadn't done all that well. Or maybe it was because the people who were watching him knew that they have at least two more days of this ahead of them.

By Tim Grieve

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

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