Commentary: The Alito hearings did fail the American people

SAN DIEGO -- Senate confirmation hearings are supposed to teach us things and, sure enough, the hearings for Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito Jr. taught us plenty.

SAN DIEGO -- Senate confirmation hearings are supposed to teach us things and, sure enough, the hearings for Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito Jr. taught us plenty.

Not about the nominee, who at times couldn't get a word in edgewise as Democrats and Republicans blathered incessantly, either attacking him or defending him against the attacks of others.

I couldn't decide which was more painful to watch.

Rather, the lessons were about the system and the people it is supposed to serve. We learned more about what's important to the media -- especially inside-the-Beltway commentators -- and what isn't. Executive power and abortion are hot issues; affirmative action and alumni organizations are not.

Lesson No. 1: The confirmation process no longer works as it should, and needs to be replaced with something better. It's no longer about providing information about the nominee but about providing a soapbox for senators. That can backfire. In a Senate full of blowhards and buffoons, nominees with controversial views or checkered pasts have a built-in escape hatch. When Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., questioned Alito about the Concerned Alumni of Princeton -- the odious organization that the nominee mentioned, when pursuing a promotion in the Reagan Justice Department, that he was a "participant" in -- Kennedy became the issue. And those who dislike the senator from Massachusetts wound up liking Alito by default.


Lesson No. 2: Latinos still have to put up with insult added to injury. First the nation's largest minority is passed over three times by President Bush, who promised to put a Latino on the Supreme Court. (President Clinton, who billed himself as sensitive to minorities, also overlooked Latinos twice.) Then they have to watch John Roberts confirmed as chief justice despite the fact that he once wrote a racially insensitive memo in which he described illegal immigrants and U.S.-born Latinos as "amigos." And now they see Alito heading to apparent confirmation despite the fact that he once boasted about belonging to a group whose mission was to limit the number of Latinos, other minorities and women at Princeton.

Lesson No. 3: Many talking heads on television shows and newspaper columnists didn't think the alumni group in question was an issue. Nor did it seem to bother them that a nominee, as evidenced by his membership in such a group, might have reservations about affirmative action. And that's what this was about -- not whether Alito is a bigot, but whether he shares the view of many in our society that diversity comes through the lowering of standards.

I don't know why my colleagues didn't sink their teeth into what was obviously a delicious tidbit -- a nominee's possible misgivings about affirmative action or the evasive ways in which he responded to questions about his associating with others who had similar misgivings. Maybe it's because some people in my profession also have those misgivings. And when these folks assure us that this bugaboo around the Princeton alumni group is no big deal, we're supposed to believe that the assessment has nothing to do with their own ambivalence about affirmative action.

And lesson No. 4: Americans still can't talk honestly about race or racism. They can't even talk about programs -- however flawed -- that were created to alleviate the effects of racism. Alito was certainly in no hurry to talk about such things, and who can blame him. He took enough shelling just by insisting that, although he had "racked (his) brain," he couldn't for the life of him remember the first thing about the Princeton alumni group -- except that if he was a member, it was most likely because of his desire to see ROTC returned to campus, something that (and this was not so convenient for the nominee) had already occurred by the time Alito joined the group.

For the most part, I'm willing to buy what Republicans were selling about how Alito is honest and full of integrity. If confirmed, I believe he could make a fine Supreme Court justice.

And yet, I also believe that Alito, while obviously intelligent, was playing dumb about the Princeton alumni group. After all, as we now know, that's one impressive brain that he was racking. It's the kind of brain that's capable of reaching back over nearly 20 years of court decisions and recalling the exact circumstances of a case, the principles involved and the precedent relied upon in making the decision. And yet somehow, in recalling even the slightest detail of why he joined a group of conservative alumni, or even why he later brought up his membership in pursuit of a promotion, it failed him.

You know, the way -- you'd have to say -- the Alito hearings failed the American people.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is .

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