Sunday, May 16, 2010

We Already Knew She Was On Law Review....

Almost a decade ago, David Brooks attempted to brand bookish Princeton students as "Organization Kids"1, speculating that they came from homes with highly structured schedules of activities, leading to college schedules that "sounded like a session of Future Workaholics of America". Recognizing that not everybody goes to Princeton, in order to get some balance for his piece Brooks went to... Harvard. Yeah. One of my brothers was at Michigan State University at that time and he was a different sort of "Organization Kid", I suppose - he organized quite a few raves.... David, you need to get out more.

Brooks returned to that subject in relation to Elena Kagan, reminding us,
About a decade ago, one began to notice a profusion of Organization Kids at elite college campuses. These were bright students who had been formed by the meritocratic system placed in front of them. They had great grades, perfect teacher recommendations, broad extracurricular interests, admirable self-confidence and winning personalities.

If they had any flaw, it was that they often had a professional and strategic attitude toward life. They were not intellectual risk-takers. They regarded professors as bosses to be pleased rather than authorities to be challenged. As one admissions director told me at the time, they were prudential rather than poetic.

If you listen to people talk about Elena Kagan, it is striking how closely their descriptions hew to this personality type.
Let's see.... Elena Kagan did graduate from Princeton, but in 1981. So either she was way ahead of her time, or Brooks was about twenty years too slow on the uptake.

I was reminded of the Brooks column as I chuckled at parts of a recent New Yorker column by Ian Frazier. If you've been exposed to law students, particularly the high achievers who go on to elite clerkships, you are probably more likely to chuckle at the picture he paints of Supreme Court Clerks, nervous about their presence at an event in the White House Rose Garden, instructed by Justice Stevens not to worry and to "Just keep your eyes on me, and do exactly what I do." But unbeknownst to the law clerks, a bee crawled into Justice Stevens' collar,
A few minutes passed before Justice Stevens became aware of the bee under his shirt, just at the base of his neck. In an attempt to dislodge the insect, the Justice raised his right shoulder, then his left. Faithful to our instructions, all twenty-six of us clerks immediately did the same. The tactic had no effect, however, so Justice Stevens repeated it, now moving alternating shoulders up and down more rapidly and jiggling his arms. None of us clerks quite understood how these gestures could be necessary for the ceremony, but, trusting implicitly in our kind mentor, we moved our shoulders and jiggled our arms just as he had done....

Looking over his shoulder as he shimmied uncontrollably across the Rose Garden lawn, he saw twenty-six clerks shimmying behind him, and in a near frantic attempt to get through to us began to wave his hands back and forth and cry, “No! No! Quit copying me!” We, assuming this was just part of the drill, waved our hands and cried, “No! No! Quit copying me!”
Returning from the world of fiction, back during my undergraduate days I heard a professor at a blue collar state university comment that he didn't like to teach honors students, because they were too afraid of being wrong. But you know what? You are probably going to do better at law school by reflecting your professors' ideology back at them, than you are by challenging your professors' ideas. A classmate who graduated with a very high GPA left one of our finals chuckling about some of the things he wrote on the final - what sounded to me like crude parodies of the law professor's philosophy. He got an A+. He had not been afraid to speak his mind in class, and his politics were pretty much the diametric opposite of the professor's, but he knew not just to keep his head down for the exam but to take obsequiousness to an entirely new level. I don't believe for a second that even with the same exam, absent blind grading, he would have received the same grade.

Kagan was strategic? She was effective "at playing her cards"? She avoided disclosing her ideology? And... yes, she made law review, served as Supervisory Editor, and graduated magna cum laude. And I could picture her doing the "bee dance" at a White House event, not because her background makes her different from her peers, but because it's anything but atypical.

In a big picture sense, Kagan's not a big mystery. She's openly aligned herself with the Democratic party and the political left. She clerked for Thurgood Marshall. She worked for the Clinton Administration and the Obama Administration. To the degree that she's circumspect, it's primarily been by avoiding a public record on litmus test issues.

Picture a columnist for the New York Times who is associated with a political party and ideology, but who avoids writing on the hot button issues. Who is instead known for taking the party's message and trying to massage it into something that seems more moderate or centrist, while fastidiously avoiding the issues where that's not possible. Who do you have, if not David Brooks. I can't help but wonder if his closing,
She seems to be smart, impressive and honest — and in her willingness to suppress so much of her mind for the sake of her career, kind of disturbing.
is meant as a laugh line.
1. I understand why syndicated columnists want to inject certain words into the popular discourse - "the world is flat", and all that - it helps build their brand. But it's annoying, and if it hasn't caught on despite years of repetition, perhaps it's time to give it a rest. Or if you just can't let go, take ownership and stick a little "™" symbol after each use to emphasize the proprietary nature of your phrase.

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