Monday, May 19, 2003

Rumblings of Change from the Capital

Two big developments from D.C. today, one a done deal, the other merely an informed speculation just now. White House press secretary Ari Fleischer is stepping down soon to begin cashing in on his fame, or should we say infamy. In my book, he'll go down in history as one of the most impressive obfuscators in a long line of people in that post who were pretty good at it. I recommend this now-classic take on the Ari Method. In his more than two years on the job, I can't think of a single thing he said that made any situation clearer or caused one to think that he might be adding some even microscopic insight into the workings of the government. But you can't blame him--he worked for a president who has no interest in engaging citizens in any kind of adult conversation about their government. As a telling front page story in last week's Times put it, the Bush White House has been even more brazenly accomplished in its TV staging of the prez than was the Reagan White House, which is saying something.

But far more important in the grand scheme of things is a changeover in the Supreme Court that might be about to occur. While some progressives still consider the 2000 presidential election to have been little more than a political coup engineered by the Supremes, you don't have to agree with that to understand how important the high court is. And if Bush gets the chance to fill not just one but two seats, as this piece suggests, we could be in for a hell of a fight in the Senate over court nominees who will almost surely be deeply conservative and who will easily tip whatever tenuous ideological balance the court now has.

A part of me, I must admit, has never stopped being a reporter in Washington. That's how I broke into the business of journalism. I left college in the middle of a terrible recession--doubly so in the Rust Belt's Buckle of Cleveland--and thus figured that I would try my hand at finding a job in a bigger place that also might be somewhat more immune to the bad economy. So I threw what little belongings I had into my ancient brown Chevy Impala ('72, I think), took the $400 I had in the bank, and moved to Washington, D.C. I didn't really have any idea of what I was doing. But my then-girlfriend's (now wife) sister Monica was good enough to let me crash in her house for a week or two, which allowed me to find free room and board at a nearby house of a single parent. In return for the roof under my head, I watched Cliff's two kids for a couple hours a day. Eventually that led to a room at a group house, where the rent was just $170 a month, and in turn that led to a tip about a job at a small magazine just two door from the White House.

It was a weekly magazine that, I found out later, was literally won at a poker game in the '30s. And by the 1980s, they had an elegant business model: each year they hired a couple of journalism-wanabees fresh out of college for the not-so-princely salary of $11,000. They then threw them in with a couple of older journalism veterans who edited from the office, and who in turn sent us newbies up to Capitol Hill to begin covering and writing about legislation (despite our physical proximity to the Reagan White House, about 500 feet away, we didn't send anybody there for the daily spoon-feedings of p.r. drivel, which now look like substantive briefings compared to Ari's subsequent evasions) . And when we got the hang of that, you'd be assigned to another beat.

I was lucky enough to have been sent in my second stop to the hushed, collonaded confines of the Supreme Court, where I spent a great year or more learning about the law and legal issues, poring over legal filings in which various pleaders were asking the then-Warren Court to review lower court opinions. I found a desk in a corner of the press room and dug in. I began by picking up a helpful manual, the Pennsylvania Bar Association's Guide to Legalese, which served as my Fodor's guide to the language of the local natives. I then called and interviewed lawyers on both sides of various cases, who were only too happy to explain the salient legal issues. In time, I even got up the nerve to ask a few resident senior writers, journalists who covered the court for papers such as the Baltimore Sun or the National Journal, for more advice. I never summoned the nerve to approach the court's media doyenne, the formidable Linda Greenhouse, who then as now covered the court like a Talmudic scholar. She was duly revered by her peers for bringing her great learning and historical insight of the court to bear on whatever cases might have been just set for argument or whose opinions had just come down. And in more than a year, I can't say I ever saw her crack a smile or any other suggestion of a human emotion. She just went about her task every day, as quiet as a church mouse, diligently plowing away on her next installment in her series, which I now think of as periodic prose poems to American justice.

Happily, if you're a Times reader, you'll be able to judge Linda's work yourself in coming days, because May and early June mark the high court's annual end rush, when it issues opinions almost daily on the way to taking its long summer break.


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