Politics & Policy

The Roberts Disruption

A few years ago, checking in with the office, I was told I had a telephone call from Norman Lear. I immediately returned it, and probably my voice quavered. The very thought of being in personal touch with the producer of All in the Family! My all-time favorite television program. “What,” I asked unctuously, “can I do for you?”

”Well,” he said, “I would like you to be the keynote speaker at the annual banquet of People for the American Way.”

I wondered how Archie Bunker would have responded to such a request, mutatis mutandis. If I had the powers of Carroll O’Connor to register bewilderment/surprise/stupefaction, the expression on my face would have flowed, coast to coast, over the telephone line.

“Mr. Lear–”

“Norman.”

“Well, Norman, it wouldn’t be right for me to address People for the American Way.”

Why not? he asked. All I had to do was give a speech about free speech.

It was with difficulty that I explained to him that his organization was devoted in almost all matters to promoting the opposite of what I have spent my life championing.

He seemed genuinely surprised. And in this morning’s papers I read that he called together his circle in Hollywood to register his dismay at the nomination of John Roberts to serve on the Supreme Court. After Senator Leahy announced that he would vote to confirm Roberts, Mr. Lear’s–Norman’s–organization described that decision as “inexplicable.” The news story recounting the event went on to report that “some Democratic activists are already warning that these votes could affect turnout in the 2006 midterm elections.”

“It’s not right,” as Archie would say, to engage in tu quoque argumentation, but I break the rule to say that, talking of inexplicability, it is very close to that to suggest that any vote against Judge Roberts is motivated by anything at all except rank and mindless opposition to anything proposed by President Bush. The qualifications of Judge Roberts are clear beyond any reasonable question. Short of repealing that clause in the Constitution that gives the president authority to nominate members of the Supreme Court, how else deny Roberts?

What is in the political wings is something like an early polarization among Democrats. Senator Edward Kennedy is pretty steadfast as an undeviating leftist, and although Judge Roberts was tender as a lamb in replying to his questions during the hearings, Roberts, speaking extemporaneously, did everything this side of taking Senator Kennedy’s written text and correcting its historical errors, to treat him as an informed interrogator. But there were a half dozen Democratic senators waiting to follow Kennedy’s lead.

It is too early to know whether the effort at consolidating the Democratic Party in its left-lurch is going to succeed. It is a polarization without, at this moment, hard resistance from the center. Senator Leahy said he would support Roberts, but managed to appease the left by saying unpleasant things about the judge’s record. Several senators are being courted by the left, among them Durbin and Schumer and Lautenberg, and there will be a substantial vote in opposition.

It has the dawning feel of the separatism of 1947-48. The hard left back then pressed for either appeasement of the Soviet Union, or else submission to it. They had a candidate then–Henry Wallace–and don’t have one now. Senator Kerry’s ungoverned hostility to President Bush edges him toward supremacy among the Bush haters, but it is not clear that these are definitely en route to governing the Democratic Party. What cause would the left seek out, in a bid for national control first of the Democratic Party, then of the nation?

Norman Lear is not, for all his affability and innocence, the stuff of which grand secessions are made. He is more in the school of Kerensky than of Lenin. And it is too early to discern what will be the vote of Democrats at large on the matter of John Roberts’s nomination. If Roberts were to fail of confirmation, then a political front would have opened up.

But Roberts, inexplicable as it may be, isn’t going to fail, so the Democrats will not be able to use him as the great cause for dissension from the American way.

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