Brooks and Oliphant
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Brooks and Oliphant, New York Times columnist David Brooks and Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant. First a quick scorecard from each of you: On Judge Roberts himself, how did he do?
DAVID BROOKS: A. I mean I think Democrats were saying I think three Democrats said he was perhaps the best witness, the most brilliant, the best prepared that they had ever seen. I think Dianne Feinstein, Joe Biden, a couple of others said that. It’s — he did a fantastic job.
JIM LEHRER: Tom?
TOM OLIPHANT: Temperament, character, qualifications, I’d say A plus. It doesn’t get any better.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. On content.
TOM OLIPHANT: Interesting, satisfactory, responsive. He is no less or more forthcoming than any modern Supreme Court justice nominee with the possible exception of the famously closed-mouthed Antonin Scalia. He primarily sought to put the fears and concerns of Democrats to rest, understanding that the biggest possible margin creates the best possible atmosphere, assuming he becomes chief justice of the United States.
So far, the content of his testimony has succeeded in creating much angst on the Democratic side. I count five Democrats on that committee who are definitely undecided.
JIM LEHRER: What kind of marks did you give him on content, on just what he said about what he would do as a chief justice of the United States?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think the bottom line is I feel as if somebody watched every single minute of this, that I know who he is.
JIM LEHRER: You do know who he is?
DAVID BROOKS: I really do feel that. I feel that he’s a modest person who has fervent convictions about the rule of law. That’s not to say he has fervent convictions about racial issues or social issues or abortion. I’m not sure he does but he has fervent issues about the rule of law — I mean fervent convictions about the process. And the way I’d put it in our profession is that some people are opinion journalists and we tend to have fervent convictions about what society should look like.
Some people are straight reporters, and the best of them have fervent convictions about being fair and delivering the information. He strikes me as much more like a straight reporter than an opinion journalist, in the way Scalia really is an opinion journalist.
And so when I take a look at him when he talks about modesty and humility, I think that really is him saying I’m going to be fair to the process, I’m going to take each case by the facts, I’m not going to prejudge and I’m not going to be overthrowing things wildly.
JIM LEHRER: In sports and in politics, they always tend to compare people with other people. Oh, he reminds me of DiMaggio, oh, he’s just like LaGuardia or whatever. Does John Roberts remind you of any current or past Supreme Court justice?
DAVID BROOKS: I was going to say DiMaggio. (Laughter) Everyone says Rehnquist. He’s resisted that and I think he’s right to resist that. I can’t think of anybody who is quite like him. I would say a couple of law professors said this afternoon that though he’s conservative, they doubted he would overturn Roe V. Wade and I share that.
JIM LEHRER: You share that?
DAVID BROOKS: Arlen Specter said they are all gossiping about it in the cloakroom. And I share that sense that he is not someone who overturns things wildly.
TOM OLIPHANT: Let me take that one step further. The person who said he was certain that he never would was someone we both admire, Charlie Freed, who was solicitor general during the Reagan administration, now a professor at Harvard –
JIM LEHRER: A political conservative.
TOM OLIPHANT: — and a critic of Roe on legal reasoning grounds. And because of all that Judge Roberts said about the importance of precedent and super precedent and super duper precedents, to use Arlen Specter’s word, he said he was certain.
On the other hand, there was an interesting bit of testimony this afternoon that introduced a note of caution from Marcia Greenburger, one of the women’s movements most adept and brilliant lawyers, who had compared Judge Roberts’ testimony to Clarence Thomas’s in 1991.
And there were two points of similarity that she noted that I think are interesting. Roberts did have a tendency to describe specific case situations without really telling you what he thought. He could masterfully summarize one side, summarize the other side, summarize what the Supreme Court did and yet hadn’t said whether he liked it or not, and apparently Thomas did this all the way through his hearing.
Then he would use the phrase — Clarence Thomas did — with a decision. I have no quarrel with that, I have no quarrel with that. Well, John Roberts used that exact phrase. And the things that Clarence Thomas said he had no quarrel with, within a year he was condemning from the bench. So euphoria ought to be held in check. This is a tough vote for Democrats, it was designed to be tough. But the reportable fact is that several Democrats are giving very serious consideration to voting for this guy because there’s no Eureka moment. They can’t point to a quote, an act or whatever and say that’s the reason this guy should not go on the court. That does not exist.
JIM LEHRER: As I’ve heard David Brooks say many times in the last three days, if Democrats can’t vote for this guy, they can’t vote for anybody. Do you still believe that?
DAVID BROOKS: I absolutely believe that, he’s been as good as they can possibly get –
JIM LEHRER: Get from a conservative Republican –
DAVID BROOKS: — and the lessons for Republicans — right — if John Kerry had won, they’d get something a little better — but from George Bush he’s as good as they could get. And the lesson for the Bush administration, if the committee breaks down ten to eight, which is along party lines, then the lesson for the Bush administration is, hey, we shouldn’t even bother trying to negotiate with these people because they are stuck in stone.
So for the next pick, which will come soon, legal just pick a real conservative because they’re not going to vote for somebody who is so impressive anyway.
TOM OLIPHANT: The Democrats are drawing the same lesson, mirror image.
JIM LEHRER: Is that right?
TOM OLIPHANT: Absolutely. They’re well aware of that and there are going to be no votes, this isn’t going to be unanimous. But all I’m saying is the quandary here is real, and that suggests to me it’s going to be resolved in Roberts’ favor by several of them.
JIM LEHRER: You mean, if they know they vote against this guy they’re inviting a worse candidate –
TOM OLIPHANT: Right. There was some consultation this time around; it appeared to have had some effect on the White House, in terms of how about a confirmation of a conservative, with a big vote. So listen to us, don’t do this kind, maybe try to think like this. You could do it again if you wanted to.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. New subject: The president speaking tonight, to the nation, from New Orleans, about what he’s going to do about rebuilding that part of the country — what’s his mission?
TOM OLIPHANT: Well, his mission is to do what he was unable to do at the beginning of the storm, and that is to grab this problem by the neck and not only take control of it but be seen to be taking control of it. And time is a wasting because the government is almost in as severe a mess as Louisiana and Mississippi are.
The $60 billion that has already been appropriated, I’m told, will run out in two weeks.
JIM LEHRER: Wow.
TOM OLIPHANT: People in Congress want another request next week. The amount, I think the president may actually say this, but the amount that people are talking about exceeds the cost of the Iraq War.
The revenue flow to the governments of Louisiana and Mississippi has gone way, way down.
JIM LEHRER: It’s going to be down to zero –
TOM OLIPHANT: We’re talking about not just a reconstruction but ongoing support, so not only in terms of money, but in terms of image and concept, the president not only literally has to take control of the American government’s response to this unprecedented situation, he must be seen as doing so.
DAVID BROOKS: Spent $60 million in two or three weeks with the casinos all closed down there. I agree with Tom. He’s got to lay out a few things, first what went wrong, –
JIM LEHRER: He’s got to talk about that tonight?
DAVID BROOKS: Absolutely — and he’s got to say what my government is doing so we will know what went wrong, specifically. Then he’s got to look at the immediate needs of the people who have been evacuated or displaced from their homes, then he’s got to have a long-term vision of how we’re going to take advantage of this unfortunate opportunity to make New Orleans better than it was.
And he’s got to do it, and this is his political problem on the right, he’s got to do it explaining why we’re spending hundreds of billions of dollars in ways that shouldn’t offend conservatives.
JIM LEHRER: But how can that be? I mean, the billions and billions of dollars become billions and billions of dollars.
DAVID BROOKS: I think there are a couple of things he has to do. First – which I think he probably won’t do tonight but should do in the future — explain off setting budget cuts.
JIM LEHRER: Oh, okay.
DAVID BROOKS: But then he’s got to explain how he’s going to spend it so he’ll do it in ways that are consistent with conservative principles, rebuilding communities, government not creating programs but being a catalyst for community programs to rebuild families, tax zones, so there will be more entrepreneurial development.
That sort of stuff is consistent with conservative ideas and does involve an activist government but it won’t be sort of an old liberal nanny state.
TOM OLIPHANT: But the size of the problem may dwarf all ideologies. I mean, more than 900 separate water and sewage systems in Louisiana and Mississippi are down — out of action — all by itself, a huge problem. There is a backlog right now in road construction of something like $120 billion. Think how much has been added by the road and bridge deconstruction here. It’s an immense job.
JIM LEHRER: Yes or no from both of you. Is the problem of rebuilding leadership, confidence in his leadership as big as that?
TOM OLIPHANT: Absolutely. The size and the nature of the problem –
JIM LEHRER: I said, yes or no, Tom.
TOM OLIPHANT: Yes, yes.
DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I’m a good student.
JIM LEHRER: You’re a good John Roberts, right. Okay, thank you both very much and we’ll talk later after the president’s speech.