Not in Polite Company

Consistent with my post yesterday, I didn’t see last night’s Democrat Debate in Nevada. I did hear about one question posed to Sen. Joe Biden regarding Supreme Court nominees, and his answer. It’s particularly interesting because of Sen. Biden’s history in the Senate Judiciary Committee, and his part in the rejection of Judge Robert Bork in 1987. Ann Althouse reminds us what happened 20 years ago:

ALAN K. SIMPSON, Republican of Wyoming: And now I have one final question. Why do you want to be an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court?

BORK: Senator, I guess the answer to that is that I have spent my life in the intellectual pursuits in the law. And since I’ve been a judge, I particularly like the courtroom. I like the courtroom as an advocate and I like the courtroom as a judge. And I enjoy the give-and-take and the intellectual effort involved. It is just a life and that’s of course the Court that has the most interesting cases and issues and I think it would be an intellectual feast just to be there and to read the briefs and discuss things with counsel and discuss things with my colleagues. That’s the first answer.

The second answer is, I would like to leave a reputation as a judge who understood constitutional governance and contributed his bit to maintaining it in the ways I have described before this committee. Our constitutional structure is the most important thing this nation has and I would like to help maintain it and to be remembered for that.

Biden was referring to just that statement by Bork, especially the part I emboldened, when he answered last night:

I have taken on those justices who, in fact, show no balance — they are ideologues. We have enough ideologues. We have enough professors on the bench. I want someone who ran for dog catcher. I want someone — literally, not a joke. When Hillary’s husband asked me for his advice when he was appointing people, I wanted to go to people and so did he — we couldn’t. Four people turned it down. We wanted to get someone who, in fact, knew what it was to live life.

This brought me up short. Apparently Biden wasn’t thrilled with Bork’s answer.

I once made the claim that there are questions that should not be asked in polite company. I don’t know if Biden was asked one of those – it doesn’t seem so. The question he appears to be answering is “How will you select Supreme Court nominees?”, filtered through the lens of his experience on the Judiciary Committee.

But Sen. Alan Simpson’s question to Judge Bork, is one of those unfair questions. “Why do you want to be…” it the very question that tripped up Sen. Ted Kennedy when Mike Wallace of CBS effectively ended his candidacy for president in 1979. I don’t consider it a fair question.

Why is it unfair, you ask? Certainly a candidate for high office (or for any position of authority, for that matter) should be able to tell us why he wants that position, right? It’s unfair because the real question is not asked. The real question is not even a question, but a demand for the person to extemporaneously reveal himself and thrill [me/the questioner] with wit and brilliance. The unfairness isn’t even in the demand to reveal your soul – we ask that of our spouses, lovers, children, parents and sometimes even bosses all the time. The sin is in the “extemporaneous” part. The demand made by Alan Simpson, and Mike Wallace (but oddly, not by Wolf Blitzer of Biden last night) is every bit a demand to be instantly charming, disarming and intellectual simultaneously.

And unless you are unusually gifted, such question are answered only with practice. And practiced answers are precisely what the questioner was trying to avoid, after all.

And worse, as Biden revealed yesterday, the candidates have practiced the answer to that question so often, no purpose is served by asking it. Any answer given is effectively the wrong answer. Not a lie, necessarily. But always wrong.

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