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TED TALLEY: Under the big top

Judicial hearing does little to brighten view of Senate

Last week I visited my eldest son in suburban Houston. While he was teaching orchestra at James Bowie Middle School (Yeah, I was indeed in Texas), I holed up in his apartment, promising myself I'd finish a Louisiana citrus story for a Baton Rouge magazine. Unfortunately, I became distracted by the gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Brett Kavanaugh Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. My son's cat and I watched together.

Driving home I pondered what I'd seen those three days as I cued a CD from my 1970s boomer collection: Procol Harum Live in Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. An epiphany arose: Substituting the SCOTUS candidate's name for King Jimi (Hendrix), Keith Reid's psychedelic lyrics clarified the Senate testimony:

'Twas tea-time at the circus: Judge Kavanaugh, he was there,

Through hoops he skipped, high wires he tripped, and all the while the glare,

Of the aching, baking spotlight beat down upon his cloak.

And though the crowd clapped furiously they could not see the joke.

'Twas tea-time at the circus, though some might not agree,

As jugglers danced, and horses pranced and clowns clowned endlessly.

But trunk to tail the Elephants, quite silent, never spoke.

And though the crowd clapped desperately they could not see the joke.

Art was politics. Even Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., used the big-top metaphor.

"People wonder," he said, "are these hearings turning into a circus?"

"Most Americans after this process will have a dimmer view of the Senate," he said.

Sorry, Mr. Graham, but the electorate's living room track-lighting rheostat was turned low long before these recent antics.

Republicans, the ones running the fait accompli vote that will seat the man, proffered Judge Kavanaugh as a Boy Scout or more precisely a Jesuit-schooled altar boy who loves coaching his daughter's basketball team. We heard heart-warming commentary about a young man who sat at the kitchen table listening to his law-student mother practice her summations. We heard sports analogies. We met his daughter's teammates.

When the Democrats spoke, Kavanaugh was the devil from Chesapeake Bay. Pro-business, pro-gun, anti-women, anti-puppies-and-kittens. Any old Republican caricature would do. And the grandstanding, mostly evident through repeated questions on the same topic, was filled with "gotchas" as if for a crime suspect. Thankfully the committee process allows for questioners but one at a time. Otherwise, we may have seen Sens. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., and Christopher Coons, D-Del., playing good cop-bad cop.

Coons offered mind-numbing repetitions and hypotheticals to an unflagging Kavanaugh regarding executive powers and pardons. It made great effect for the news pool camera and his constituents. Or did it? To me Coons was a character actor in mid-century television drama---perhaps an officious, unlikable and balding prosecutor in a Perry Mason rerun. Meanwhile, behind the theater curtains, Coons is not only a long-time acquaintance of Kavanaugh, but more broadly, for example, co-founder of the industry-promoting Senate Chicken Caucus. Who knew there was such? A Northeast Democrat shares the same roost as Republican poultry state senators like our own John Boozman and Tom Cotton. The Delawarean would be at ease in a Tyson VIP box at a Razorbacks game, noshing on gourmet chicken nuggets. Yet last week Coons was hard-line, chapter and verse, Democrat.

Then there was Cory Booker, Democratic junior senator from New Jersey, posturing for national office with his Rhodes Scholar credentials, Newark, N.J. "bring it on" street smarts and almost, but not quite, Denzel Washington handsomeness. Yet he stumbled, threatening the release of committee confidential documents in his self-described "Spartacus moment." The documents had been out before his threat, so was he the epic Spartacus slave rebellion leader or a guy in white tights in the pas de deux from Khachaturian's ballet of the same name? The latter. Comic memes of him were on the web within hours.

While much of the hearing sessions was theater of the absurd, Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse's was close-up, visceral theater-in-the-round. If Booker's moment was Spartacus, Sasse's was Capra-esque "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Straight from the heart and the heartland, he told us what we already knew: When so very much attention is placed upon the judiciary, and therefore a high court nomination, then the legislative branch has lost its compass and purpose.

As I steered north towards Arkansas, I wondered what Lady Justice, guardian on the steps of our nation's most important courthouse, would think of all this. Silent, blindfolded, holding the scales of impartiality close to her marble heart, has her ghostly face turned a whiter shade of pale?

Commentary on 09/13/2018

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