The politics of personal investigation

One of the joys of becoming a Supreme Court justice is that special-interest groups rummage through your past for nuggets of information that they can then use to oppose your nomination.

Few of us could survive this scrutiny _ well, at least not friends of mine. As for me, I have led an exemplary life, except for those periods of riotous and inappropriate behavior that may or may not have involved alcoholic beverages. (Senator, my mind is cloudy about the details.) It seems that Samuel A. Alito Jr., President Bush’s latest choice for the Supreme Court, is a sober-sided fellow, but even he has a past to live down in the form of past comments in an application for a government job and membership of a reactionary college alumni group. (No word yet on whether he kept library books beyond the due date.) In Sunday’s New York Times, a story turned a spotlight on the Concerned Alumni of Princeton, of which the nominee was once a member, although apparently not a prominent one. According to the Times, the group was founded in 1972 by alumni “upset that Princeton had recently begun admitting women.”

The horror of this was but one concern of the concerned alumni. They also had other beefs, including that minorities were being admitted to Princeton at the expense of their children.

What all this says about Judge Alito is not clear. Still, while hardly a surprise, I grant you it is a little creepy that Sam Alito was a conservative as a young man. This is against the order of Nature.

Winston Churchill got the sense of this when he allegedly said, getting it half right, “Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has not heart, and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains.” My point is not whether the nominee has no heart. I concede the point that having a heart as a judge may be less important than possessing a good golf swing.

No, what interests me is the various harrumphings of the Concerned Alumni of Princeton back in those days and how indicative they are of the perils of being a conservative. As the Times story observed, the group’s views began to seem increasingly “anachronistic or worse,” and within a few years the old boys drowned in their own irrelevance.

This is ever the way with conservatives. No doubt those old Princeton grads were proud to be conservative as they bemoaned the dreadful fact that women were voting, driving automobiles and entering Princeton and that minorities were arriving without blue blazers and penny loafers, and in every sense tradition was being trampled. All the while, Bob Dylan was singing “the times they are a-changin’ ” _ as times have a habit of doing to the eternal consternation of those rooted in the past.

Once upon a time, conservatives supported slavery, resisted civil rights, said a good word for workhouses and orphanages, threw their single but pregnant daughters out of their homes, and thought that children working in the mines was a splendid arrangement.

They did this up until the moment it became plainly nuts to keep on doing it, at which time they incorporated liberal and progressive ideas into the conservative philosophy and pretended that it was ever thus. This explains why the conservative George W. Bush, to his great credit, had no qualms about appointing a black woman as secretary of state.

Of course, some vestiges of the old attitudes remain in conservative circles, and no doubt somewhere, in a book-lined cave, an ancient Princeton graduate is still mumbling darkly about those darn women. But the times did change and being a respectable conservative today is to hold some attitudes that were liberal _ such as, unfortunately, having no regard for the size of the federal deficit.

Liberals, of course, have their own problems. It’s not just that they favor any sort of sex as long as a cigarette isn’t smoked afterward; it’s also that they are often too accepting of certain behavior. As far as I am concerned, they should have led the fight against Casual Friday.

As for my own political views, I echo the British actress of another era (Beatrice Stella Tanner Campbell) who said: “My dear, I don’t care what they do, so long as they don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses.” In any age, the challenge for liberals and conservatives, whether judicial nominees or not, is to know what horses to frighten.

(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. His e-mail address is rhenry(at)