AS political theater, the Sonia Sotomayor hearings tanked faster than the 2008 Fred Thompson presidential campaign. They boasted no drama to rival the Clarence-Anita slapdown, the Bork hissy fits or the tearful exodus of Samuel Alito’s wife. There was rarely a moment to match even the high point of the Senate’s previous grilling of Sotomayor — in 1997, when she was elevated to the Second Circuit. It was then that Senator John Ashcroft of Missouri previewed the brand of white male legal wisdom that would soon become his hallmark at the Bush Justice Department. “Do you believe there’s a constitutional right to homosexual conduct by prisoners?” he asked. (She aced it: “No, sir.”)
Yet the Sotomayor show was still rich in historical significance. Someday we may regard it as we do those final, frozen tableaus of Pompeii. It offered a vivid snapshot of what Washington looked like when clueless ancien-régime conservatives were feebly clinging to their last levers of power, blissfully oblivious to the new America that was crashing down on their heads and reducing their antics to a sideshow as ridiculous as it was obsolescent.
The hearings were pure “Alice in Wonderland.” Reality was turned upside down. Southern senators who relate every question to race, ethnicity and gender just assumed that their unreconstructed obsessions are America’s and that the country would find them riveting. Instead the country yawned. The Sotomayor questioners also assumed a Hispanic woman, simply for being a Hispanic woman, could be portrayed as The Other and patronized like a greenhorn unfamiliar with How We Do Things Around Here. The senators seemed to have no idea they were describing themselves when they tried to caricature Sotomayor as an overemotional, biased ideologue.
At least they didn’t refer to “Maria Sotomayor” as had Mike Huckabee, whose sole knowledge of Latinos apparently derives from “West Side Story.” But when Tom Coburn of Oklahoma merrily joked to Sotomayor that “You’ll have lots of ’splainin’ to do,” it clearly didn’t occur to him that such mindless condescension helps explain why the fastest-growing demographic group in the nation is bolting his party.
Coburn wouldn’t know that behind the fictional caricature Ricky Ricardo was the innovative and brilliant Cuban-American show-business mogul Desi Arnaz. As Lucie Arnaz, his and Lucille Ball’s daughter, told me last week, it always seemed unfair to her that those laughing at her father’s English usually lacked his fluency in two languages. Then again, Coburn was so unfamiliar with Jews he didn’t have a clear fix on what happened in the Holocaust until 1997, when he was 48. Party elders like Bill Bennett had to school him after he angrily berated NBC for subjecting children and “decent-minded individuals everywhere” to the violence, “full-frontal nudity and irresponsible sexual activity” of “Schindler’s List.”
The antediluvian political culture of Coburn and his peers, for all its roots in the race-baiting “Southern strategy” of the Nixon era, is actually of a more recent vintage. It dates back just 15 years, to what my Times colleague Sam Tanenhaus calls conservatism’s “most decadent phase” in his coming book “The Death of Conservatism.” This was the Newt Gingrich revolution, swept into Congress by the midterms of 1994. Its troops came armed with a reform agenda titled the “Contract With America” and a mother lode of piety. Their promises included an end to federal deficits, the restoration of national security, transparent (and fewer) House committees, and “a Congress that respects the values and shares the faith of the American family.”
That the class of ’94 failed on almost every count is a matter of history, no matter how hard it has retroactively tried to blame its disastrous record on George W. Bush. Its incompetence may even have been greater than its world-class hypocrisy. Its only memorable achievements were to shut down the government in a fit of pique and to impeach Bill Clinton in a tsunami of moral outrage.
The class of ’94 gave us J.D. Hayworth and Bob Ney of the Jack Abramoff casino-lobbying scandals. Ney, a House committee chairman, did 17 months in jail. It gave us the sexual adventurers Mark Sanford, John Ensign and Mark Foley. (All these distinguished gentlemen voted for articles of impeachment, as did Gingrich, their randy role model.) The class of ’94 also included a black Republican, J. C. Watts, who at least had the integrity to leave Congress in 2003 to become a bona fide lobbyist rather than go on a K Street lobbyist’s payroll while still in public office. He was a fleeting novelty; there’s been no black Republican elected to either chamber of Congress since. Today the G.O.P.’s token black is its party chairman, Michael Steele, who last week unveiled his latest strategy for recruiting minority voters. “My plan is to say, ‘Ya’ll come!’ ” he explained, adding “I got the fried chicken and potato salad!”
Among Sotomayor’s questioners, both Coburn and Lindsey Graham are class of ’94. They — along with Jeff Sessions, a former Alabama attorney general best known for his unsuccessful prosecutions of civil rights activists — set the Republicans’ tone last week. In one of his many cringe-inducing moments, Graham suggested to Sotomayor that she had “a temperament problem” and advised that “maybe these hearings are a time for self-reflection.” That’s the crux of the ’94 spirit, even more than its constant, whiny refrain of white victimization: Hold others to a standard that you would not think of enforcing on yourself or your peers. Self-reflection may be mandatory for Sotomayor, but it certainly isn’t for Graham.
In his ’94 Congressional campaign in South Carolina, Graham made a big deal of promising to enact term limits. At the Clinton impeachment, he served as a manager of the prosecution. That was then, and this is now. Graham hasn’t even term-limited himself — an action he could have taken at any time unilaterally — and his pronouncements on marital morality (unencumbered by any marital attachments of his own) are a study in relativism. On “Meet the Press,” he granted absolution to his ’94 classmate Sanford, now his state’s governor, for abusing his office with his taxpayer-financed extramarital “trade mission” to Argentina. “I think the people of South Carolina will give him a second chance,” he said, as long as “Jenny and Mark can get back together.” Maybe Graham judges the Sanfords by a more empathetic standard than the Clintons because the Republican lieutenant governor who would replace Sanford is already fending off rumors that he’s gay.
Graham has also given a pass to his ’94 classmate Ensign, now a Nevada senator. Ensign not only committed adultery with an employee but sat by as his wealthy parents gave the mistress and her cuckolded husband nearly $100,000 to ease their pain. Ensign’s lawyer deflected questions that this beneficence might be hush money by claiming it was part of the senior Ensigns’ “pattern of generosity.”
When asked about these unsavory matters, Graham said that an ethics investigation of Ensign “isn’t high” among his priorities. This moral abdication still puts him on a higher plane than Coburn, who has been a murky broker in Ensign’s sexcapades. The husband of Ensign’s mistress told The Las Vegas Sun that Coburn urged Ensign to give him and his wife more than $1 million to pay off their mortgage and “move them to a new life.” Too bad no one thought of that one for the “Contract With America.”
Coburn maintains that he has immunity from testifying in any Ensign inquiry because he counseled Ensign as “a physician” and an “ordained deacon.” Coburn is an obstetrician and gynecologist, but never mind. What’s more relevant is the gall of his repeatedly lecturing Sotomayor last week on the “proper role” of judges — even to the point of reading her oath of office out loud. Coburn finds Sotomayor’s views “extremely troubling.” There’s nothing in Sotomayor’s history remotely as troubling as Coburn’s role in the Ensign scandal. Or as his inability to grasp Al Qaeda any better than he did the Nazis. In 2004, he claimed in all seriousness that the “gay agenda” is “the greatest threat to our freedom that we face today.”
You’d think that Coburn’s got some ’splainin’ to do, but as Washington etiquette has it, we spent the week learning every last footnote about Sotomayor while acres of press coverage shed scant light on the shoddy records of those judging her. The public got the point anyway about this dying order and its tired racial and culture wars. With Sotomayor’s fate never in doubt, it changed the channel.
Much of the audience was surely driven away by the sheer boredom of watching white guys incessantly parse the nominee’s “wise Latina” remark. This badgering was their last-ditch effort to prove that Gingrich was right when he called Sotomayor a racist at the start of the nomination process. She confronted that overheated controversy directly. “I do not believe that any ethnic, racial or gender group has an advantage in sound judgment,” Sotomayor testified.It’s the American way that we judge people as individuals, not as groups. And by that standard we can say unequivocally that this particular wise Latina, with the richness of her experiences, would far more often than not reach a better conclusion than the individual white males she faced in that Senate hearing room. Even those viewers who watched the Sotomayor show for only a few minutes could see that her America is our future and theirs is the rapidly receding past.