Day One’s Stand-Up Guy Becomes Day Two’s Shifty Weasel

Finally, yesterday, Judge John Roberts gave those brave American citizens struggling to keep their eyes open during his soporific confirmation hearing a piece of critical insight into his elusive mind: His favorite films are “Doctor Zhivago” and “North by Northwest.”

Hmmmm. Both stories of lone men — an idealistic poet and a slick Madison Avenue ad executive — struggling to reassert identity in the face of crushing oppression from the state. Maybe this was a subtle message to the cinephiles out there that the man, despite his cool exterior, was feeling the pressure? Or, maybe not. But it’s as good a guess as any into Roberts’ interior life, because little else was forthcoming.

And so, by the second day of confirmation hearings yesterday, you could see the frustration rising from Senators Biden, Schumer, and Feinstein. Roberts wasn’t really giving them much to work with. And when the senators don’t have much to work with, it also means reporters covering the hearing are left without much to work with — or to write about. Thus, the most immediate effect of Roberts’ effective and persistent evasiveness was the shift in tone by most reporters covering the hearing, from viewing his evasiveness on day one as a sign of confidence and skill, to seeing him on day two as a frustratingly slick non-responder, too wily to be pinned down by bloviating Democrats.

Yesterday, for example, in Dana Milbank’s first-day dispatch in the Washington Post, he described Roberts thusly: “He was sharp-tongued…He was quick on his feet…And he showed flashes of wit.” By today, Milbank seemed a bit exhausted with the performance, not to mention snippy, and he seconded Joseph Biden’s description of the hearing as “Kabuki theater.”

The New York Times was no different. Todd Purdum on Tuesday, described Roberts in glowing terms: “His face never scowled. His level tone seldom varied. He answered questions he found useful to his cause and avoided those he did not. Above all, Judge John G. Roberts Jr. explained his views and defended his honor with the force and fluidity of an advocate who has argued often before tougher judges than those he faced on the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.” He continued: “He listened. He smiled. He nodded. He spoke of the power of precedent and the importance of humility, using plain language with senators who sometimes got tangled in legal shorthand, jargon and precedents.”

The Los Angeles Times’ Ron Brownstein concurred, saying that Roberts exuded a “quiet confidence,” and was “composed and rigidly disciplined.”

By today, though, the dominant metaphor was of a slippery boxer, bobbing and weaving around the ring, effortlessly dodging haymakers from a succession of ham-handed opponents. Sheryl Gay Stolberg characterized Roberts in the New York Times, as dancing “his way around questions.” Marcia Davis, in the Washington Post did her one better: “Roberts is looking a little bit like a young Muhammad Ali dancing his way around the hearing room.”

Reporters also focused on the dissatisfaction of Democratic senators with Roberts’ answers — as if, no matter what or how much Roberts said, Democrats were ever going to be satisfied with a Bush administration-chosen nominee. Certain moments of Democratic exasperation were plucked and displayed everywhere.

“Just talk to me as a father,” pleaded Biden.

“I am trying to get your feelings as a man,” Feinstein implored.

It’s not hard to see why on day two journalists would start to identify with the Democrats. The senators wanted fuller answers. The reporters wanted a juicier story. Fair enough.

But is that any reason to change Judge Roberts in just one day from a charming yet forceful witness into a shifty-eyed card shark refusing to show his hand?

Us, we want more movie questions.

Gal Beckerman

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.