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Elena Kagan must loosen up at confirmation hearings

Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan and I shared a dinner table once. It was almost a year ago at a mutual friend's house. We didn't say much to each other except, "Nice to meet you" at the casual gathering. The conversation around the table was fun, raucous, ranged from the serious to the inane and was almost always filled with laughter. (Okay, I admit to being the really loud one.) But something has stayed with me since that night. Kagan, the solicitor general who had been in the running for the high court when President Obama chose now-Justice Sonia Sotomayor, was uncomfortably quiet -- for me. And once word leaked out last week that the unbelievably capable Kagan was Obama's pick, which was made official yesterday, that uncomfortable feeling came roaring back.

Kagan's qualifications are not at issue for me. The Republican slam that she has little experience is a yawner of a concern. I have no doubt Kagan can and will hold her own in the lifetime appointment if she's confirmed. But it was Harvard Law professor John Palfrey's quote in the New York Times that put a finger on my uneasiness. “She was one of the most strategic people I’ve ever met, and that’s true across lots of aspects of her life,” he said. “She is very effective at playing her cards in every setting I’ve seen.” I'm the last person to have a problem with someone being strategic, yet it's the aspect of withholding bits and pieces of one's character and personality that quote implies that speaks to my apprehension.

A piece by New York Times columnist David Brooks today, however, had me yelling, "That's it!"

Brooks writes about "Organization Kids." Those stellar students with great grades and self-confidence but whose "flaw" is that "they often had a professional and strategic attitude toward life." My eureka moment came in the last paragraph.


I have to confess my first impression of Kagan is a lot like my first impression of many Organization Kids. 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.

There's no doubt Kagan will get confirmed by the Senate. She's already gotten its approval once for solicitor general. But when she goes to her confirmation hearings later this spring, I would urge her to dispel that disturbing impression of her by loosening the grip on the cards and letting people see and get to know who she is.

By Jonathan Capehart  | May 11, 2010; 11:21 AM ET
Categories:  Capehart  | Tags:  Jonathan Capehart  
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Comments

I am so frustrated to see this attitude given print in a paper I respect. Why are women always being told to "loosen up," "relax," "cheer up," "smile" etc.? Would anyone write this column about a man who kept his personal life and feelings separate from his professional life? I doubt it. Yet women's demenor is just fair game for men to comment on ad naseum. I think I speak for many women whe I say that I HATE being told to "smile" or "relax" by some patronizing stranger, and I hate seeing this same annoying and belittling attitude displayed towards an accomplished attorney nominated to the Supreme Court.

Posted by: mknru | May 11, 2010 12:18 PM | Report abuse

Asking Elena Kagan to serve as a Supreme Court justice is much like asking Lou Holtz to suit-up for the Indianapolis Colts. Holtz has had a distinguished career as a coach and is deserving of respect in that role. However, he is utterly ill-equipped to play the same game he has coached.

While Kagan deserves due regard for her distinguished academic career, this is no basis for beginning a career as a jurist at the highest level.

Posted by: dlewis4 | May 11, 2010 12:19 PM | Report abuse

if she didn't loosen up at a dinner party with you, JC, unlikely she'd do it before the Senate Judiciary committee, i don't think the strategic life comment is as venal as you think, like Obama, she has the most profound self confidence and a lot of that is about the law but most of that is about her which is probably why she got where she got. Et tu, Jonathan?

Posted by: rufkd | May 11, 2010 12:35 PM | Report abuse

Hey Capehart, what was on her mind that evening - family, work, etc? You meet her for one evening and write a column on her?

and to dlewis4, don't forget that 40 SC Justices came to the role WITHOUT Judicial experience but a wealth of knowledge of the law and work in government, management and in the priovate sector, includig john Jay, Rehnquist, tc. Knowing the case law is one aspect. Knowing the application, the way it affects others, compelling evidence vs smoke srcreens, the ability to seperate ego for opinion, the ability to work well with others and influence them - these are compelling merits as well.

Posted by: cadam72 | May 11, 2010 12:47 PM | Report abuse

Hey Capehart, what was on her mind that evening - family, work, etc? You meet her for one evening and write a column on her?

and to dlewis4, don't forget that 40 SC Justices came to the role WITHOUT Judicial experience but a wealth of knowledge of the law and work in government, management and in the priovate sector, includig john Jay, Rehnquist, tc. Knowing the case law is one aspect. Knowing the application, the way it affects others, compelling evidence vs smoke srcreens, the ability to seperate ego for opinion, the ability to work well with others and influence them - these are compelling merits as well.

Posted by: cadam72 | May 11, 2010 12:48 PM | Report abuse

Seems that when people really want to find something to criticize, they will, no matter how trivial. This criticism of Kagan can be applied to most of the nominees in recent years. Good grief, just look at John Roberts performance during the hearing on his nomination for a sterling example of devious maneuvering, obfuscation, and avoidance of clear answers to vitally important questions. And, it was generally praised as demonstrating a powerful intellect and quick mind. Pretty lame, Capeheart.

Posted by: homeplace1 | May 11, 2010 12:57 PM | Report abuse

Relax dude,

You are creating a weakly reasoned argument out of nothing at all. You needed David Brooks to hit the nail on the head for you? Whatever. Grasping at straws...

America wants the best and the brightest to be leaders, and that's exactly what she's become. So she's strategic? So what? Now you are just nitpicking.

Non story...

Posted by: dug2008 | May 11, 2010 12:58 PM | Report abuse

wait...so last week you dissed Gabby Sidibe for not wanting to talk to you at an event, this week its soon-to-be Justice Kagan for being too boring at a dinner party. Is there anyone you will not malign in an article for not living up to your social standards?

Posted by: bolanle1 | May 11, 2010 1:51 PM | Report abuse

Wow--I guess we're expecting potential supreme court nominees now to act like american idol contestants.

Posted by: publius1 | May 11, 2010 2:09 PM | Report abuse

This isn't the first time a female supreme court justice has been told to "loosen up."

From the LA Times, January 31, 1985...

"Redskins fullback John Riggins put on a raucous display at a formal Washington banquet Wednesday night, at one point urging Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor to " loosen up, Sandy baby, " then passing out on the ballroom floor and snoring through a speech by Vice President George Bush."

I'm embarrassed for you Capehart

Posted by: fourkesslers | May 11, 2010 2:10 PM | Report abuse

You have got to be kidding me. She's smarter than most, if not all, of the senators, and she has known what she wants since high school. I'm sure she loosens up amongst friends, but why should she loosen up amongst strangers? Remember Sotomayor loosening up and getting slammed? See the idiot comments about having a Protestant justice to understand the evangelical worldview coming from people who object to empathy? So, in this environment, this high IQ woman has lived her public life carefully. Stop her or condemn her if you dare. She's not Harriet. I would like to see her taking on the smug John Roberts on the Court.

Posted by: instanton | May 11, 2010 2:41 PM | Report abuse

Lighten up, Francis.

Posted by: Potter2 | May 11, 2010 2:44 PM | Report abuse

Wasn't Obama asked to "loosen" up then AND now?

Is that sexist too?

Posted by: dcis1 | May 11, 2010 2:46 PM | Report abuse

Weak column. If she "loosened up," we'd be hearing how unprofessional she is.

Posted by: koolkat_1960 | May 11, 2010 2:55 PM | Report abuse

Let's put judicial experience in context. Say you have a year or two on the Fourth Circuit under your belt. You've heard lawyers argue say 100 cases on a bunch of different issues, about 2 of which would attract the least bit of attention at the Supreme Court, let alone get there. You were on the prevailing side in the votes on several dozen of those, and assigned the majority opinion in a dozen or so of those. You are now appointed to the Supreme Court. What's your experience worth in the first case you hear, the subject of which is unique, like all Supreme Court cases are, by and large? Not a whole lot. Every case is unique, and the first case Kagan hears will require original analysis and research by her and her clerks, an intellectual debate with the other eight during deliberations, and some skill in writing opinions. A couple years on a circuit appellate court won't help her listen better, read better, think better, argue better, or write better. Being a professor who has to teach an entire body of constitutional law is actually tougher. Having to brief and argue dozens of cases in the Supreme Court as Solicitor General is more relevant experience than being even a circuit appellate court, ruling on issues regarding routine trials that aren't even eligible for Supreme Court review.

the experience issue is a non issue.

Posted by: JoeT1 | May 11, 2010 3:11 PM | Report abuse

This has got to go down as one of the most immature and inappropriate columns ever. I hope your saving your pennies.

Posted by: dcperspective | May 11, 2010 3:23 PM | Report abuse

Or, as running back John Riggins once said to Sandra Day O'Connor, after spilling alcohol on her at a party:
"Loosen up, Sandy baby."

Yeah, as one of the other posters noted, Capehart takes conduct at a private dinner party absolutely irrelevant to her conduct as a potential judge and reports on it a year later.
Then we wonder why folks who might have some ambitions are so uptight.

Posted by: keng | May 11, 2010 3:26 PM | Report abuse

I notice the story regarding union's throwing millions of dollars into the Arkansas election is buried in another section of The State Run Media....

Hummmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm...

Where those the orders of Dana Millbank or The Kremlin?

Posted by: ravioliman6666 | May 11, 2010 3:31 PM | Report abuse

Obesity task force urges action
(Reuters)
The report to U.S. President Barack Obama calls for specific actions that can be taken by government and private industry to battle a national health crisis
Obama appointed the interagency panel in February and gave it 90 days to develop recommendations for ending childhood obesity within a generation. He named first lady Michelle Obama to lead the campaign..

So Obama sets a good example for the youth with his selection of Sotomayor and Kagan that together will take up 4 sits on any airplane.
Yes, a real mixed message to the youth but they will be able to throw their weight around on the Supreme Court. I wonder how much the new heavy duty wider model chairs will cost. Tax payers?

Posted by: jblast2000 | May 11, 2010 3:33 PM | Report abuse

I notice the story regarding union's throwing millions of dollars into the Arkansas election is buried in another section of The State Run Media....

Hummmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm...

Where those the orders of Dana Millbank or The Kremlin?

Posted by: ravioliman6666 | May 11, 2010 3:38 PM | Report abuse

Good grief! How condescending and sexist of you. Men are never told to "loosen up." It makes me think about what it means when a woman is described as "loose."

Capehart - this op-ed only confirms that you are an arrogant, elitist, turd who seems to have some kind of chip on his shoulder about strong capable women. Feel threatened much?

Posted by: Sofie230 | May 11, 2010 3:49 PM | Report abuse

There is no reason for Kagan to do anything other than keep her cards close to the vest. There is no up side in revealing insights into her personality and psyche to a pack of hostile Senators no matter how comfortable it would make you feel.

Posted by: ken14 | May 11, 2010 4:06 PM | Report abuse

My reading tells me yes, she is a very calculating person, "strategic," as it were. But there is more, or less, depending on how you roll: I think she is a lightweight.

Yes, she is a perfect selection to support every law Obama manages to sign, whether it's constitutuional or not. But I think we're going to find her written opinions, if we ever see one, pretty vacuous. Of course, she might get some really red hot clerks who could provide some gravitas. We'll see.

As far as someone who can convince others and convert them to her/Obama's point of view, I don't see it. The current court can run circles around her.

Posted by: Curmudgeon10 | May 11, 2010 4:40 PM | Report abuse

Nominees these days exercise careful control over how much of their personalities they reveal in public because the confirmation process has become an utterly unforgiving, hyper-partisan demolition derby. Elena Kagan doubtless knows how to have a good time on her own terms, although what a highly intelligent, analytical and focused person considers relaxing and enjoyable might not involve getting blitzed at a party with people she doesn't know well. I don't want her to reveal her personality during the confirmation process, when malicious adversaries would only use that to take cheap shots at her. I want her personality to emerge after she is confirmed and serving as a Justice, in the questions she poses during oral argument, and in the way that she frames the positions she takes in writing her portions of the Supreme Court's decisions. My guess is that she will turn out to be a far more capable jurist than some people currently expect, and that after a few years' service she will become a real presence on the Court, one to be reckoned with for decades to come.

Posted by: 02Pete | May 11, 2010 5:12 PM | Report abuse

"Loosen up, Elena baby!"

...lol. What a dumb column.

Posted by: cali_snowboarder | May 11, 2010 5:27 PM | Report abuse

I would prefer that Elena Kagan loosen up at dinner parties after she's confirmed to the Supreme Court -- not before.

Posted by: rbn1211 | May 11, 2010 5:37 PM | Report abuse

I'm more troubled by the hanging out of columnists and Washington politicos... there's too cozy a relationship. The ones who laughed at Capehart's antics have a pass; anyone quiet, who might have thought he and the others were being juvenile, now gets shafted.

I.F. Stone was right about the politicians-reporters nexus; it means that the public's right to know gets sacrificed for the next great cocktail party or social event.

Nevertheless, Brooks is on to something with his crack about Organization Kids. She is judicially inexperienced and her having worked in the Clinton White House is troubling.

Posted by: Astrogal | May 11, 2010 6:03 PM | Report abuse

Imagine that. The Solicitor General of the United States, an official appointed by the President of the United States did not loosen up at a dinner with a reporter whom she had just met. The NERVE of that woman.

Posted by: dan_of_dc | May 11, 2010 6:09 PM | Report abuse

So Jonathan, when you say "loosen up," do you really mean, "come out?"

Be honest. You do, don't you?

Posted by: Meridian1 | May 11, 2010 6:20 PM | Report abuse

@dan_of_dc

Perfect comment! The best so far. She would have foolish to have done so. Otherwise today the article would be about how "loose" she is in private - cozying up to journalists too easily - and therefore unacceptable as a SCJ.

Posted by: Sofie230 | May 11, 2010 6:23 PM | Report abuse

capehart, how dare you criticize this accomplished, well qualified woman because she didn't talk to you at a dinner party.
i think we all know you would be the loud one at the gathering, loud and very swishy too.
another commenter mentioned you just bad-mouthed the actress recently acclaimed for her starring role in a very popular movie.
capehart i see a pattern here, you do not need to knock strong intelligent women to deflect attention from you.
everyone knows you are a closeted, loud, swishy incompetent.

Posted by: ninnafaye | May 11, 2010 6:35 PM | Report abuse

One of the most puerile things I've seen this columnist write. And that's saying something.

Posted by: cynicalidealist | May 11, 2010 7:32 PM | Report abuse

It appears that Ms. Kagan has been very shrewd during her entire working life. You would think that she had the whole thing planned from the beginning. Fortunately she is one voice on the court. But I expect that voice to be very liberal. I ask only that she adhere to the Constitution as it is written. That is hard for a liberal, very hard.

Posted by: bobbo2 | May 11, 2010 7:33 PM | Report abuse

You paint an entirely contradictory account of Kagan from all who have known her for a long time. Reportedly, she is funny and has the wit that is common among most of those with above average intellect. However, Jonathan, in today's totally toxic media environment a wise Latino, white, black or pin-stripped woman would be well advised to hold her tongue among representatives of the media.

Posted by: xclntcat | May 11, 2010 7:35 PM | Report abuse

Hey John,are you serious? Get some "man back bone". Intimidated by an accomplished educated woman and you have no shame to tell the whole world. I have watched you on MSNBC and screamed at the TV when you allow Pat Buchanan spew his hatred for any thing not white, and you sit there with a silly smile on your face. Don't be a cry baby.

Posted by: besongfittsjoseph | May 11, 2010 7:36 PM | Report abuse

This is a featherweight column, Jonathan. Not sage-like or impressive in any way but bad.

Posted by: axolotl | May 11, 2010 9:28 PM | Report abuse

"I would urge her to dispel that disturbing impression of her by loosening the grip on the cards and letting people see and get to know who she is."

Why in the world would she do that? Any and everything she says will be twisted and nitpicked by the GOP, so the less said the better. I'd rather she just stonewall the GOP and dare them to fillibuster her.

Besides, we all know now that it doesn't really matter what anyone says during these bogus "hearings." Roberts and Alito proved that prevarication is now SOP...their promises to respect precedent and to "just call balls and strikes" have proven to be shameless, bald-faced lies.

Posted by: wagner3792 | May 11, 2010 9:47 PM | Report abuse

"I would urge her to dispel that disturbing impression of her by loosening the grip on the cards and letting people see and get to know who she is."

Why in the world would she do that? Any and everything she says will be twisted and nitpicked by the GOP, so the less said the better. I'd rather she just stonewall the GOP and dare them to fillibuster her.

Besides, we all know now that it doesn't really matter what anyone says during these bogus "hearings." Roberts and Alito proved that prevarication is now SOP...their promises to respect precedent and to "just call balls and strikes" have proven to be shameless, bald-faced lies.

Posted by: wagner3792 | May 11, 2010 9:48 PM | Report abuse

She needs to loosen up and admit she's gay. If she has "profound self confidence" as you suggest, what's the problem? She was a huge critic of the "don't ask don't tell" policy -- but I bet she is a HUGE fan of it now -- especially during confirmation hearings.

Posted by: BadNews | May 11, 2010 11:25 PM | Report abuse

This is incredibly sexist and opportunistic. It's a way of gaining attention for the writer: look at me, I met the nominee. And, boy was she a sourpuss. (Or a goody-goody or a "strategist." Maybe she's an "organization kid.") Really, just give me a break. First of all, women are often told to "loosen up" or "smile" by others. It's insulting, particularly in the Washington Post. Maybe Kagan was still grieving for her mother who had died the year before, maybe she was preoccupied. Maybe she wasn't feeling good. Who knows? Does it have anything to do with her qualifications? I also read that she plays poker and basketball. I don't care if her hobby is shopping online, as long as she's qualified.

Posted by: readerny | May 11, 2010 11:27 PM | Report abuse

Nice work, Capehart. Easily one of the stupidest things I've ever read. This is the same woman who, during her confirmation hearing, described herself as a "pipsqueak" and who makes no secret of her liking cigars and playing poker. Also a hugely popular dean and professor, much beloved by students (including yours truly), mostly because she was so plain-spoken. God you are an idiot.

Posted by: deadmoney95 | May 11, 2010 11:38 PM | Report abuse


"Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan and I shared a dinner table once. It was almost a year ago at a mutual friend's house."

Admit it. It was one of those ill-conceived dinners at Weymouth's house, wasn't it?

Posted by: chambers14 | May 11, 2010 11:42 PM | Report abuse

capehart needs to grow up

or at least out grow the uncle tom phase he seems to be stuck in

what ???

capehart doesn't like being called uncle tom ???

capehart needs to lighten up

Posted by: nada85484 | May 12, 2010 12:37 AM | Report abuse

"We need to respect the fact that, it is possible to know without knowing why we know and accept that - sometimes - we're better off that way."
Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
Jonathan perhaps you should have left this one at the party :-)

Posted by: BigFren | May 14, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse

Just to review - you met her ONCE, right? And you admit to being the loud one? Maybe she just couldn't get a word in edgewise.

Posted by: kcrace | May 15, 2010 5:02 PM | Report abuse

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