The View From the Couch: 16 Tons and What Do You Get? Twenty Nine Dead


One of

the under-reported things about Elena Kagan, the current Supreme Court nominee,

has to do about her looks. Not that her looks have been under-

reported. There's been plenty on that. The subject, though, is not what

she looks like, so much as what it means. And, like most superficial

things, it does tie into some more important strands that run through her life.


fills an older stereotype, even for her generation (she was born in 1960). She

is the perfect "kid sister." not the musical group of today, but the

creation of the film world decades ago, a type to handle tom boys, or the girl

who hung with the guys, played ball, wasn't a threat to their masculinity by

being so pretty she would cause dissension in the ranks. It wasn't that

the kid sister was female identified; indeed, just the opposite: she did spend

a lot of time with the boys. Kagan seems to fit the type. The picture of

her playing softball when she taught at the University of Chicago seems to

capture it. She's spent most of her time in male-dominated professions.

And, most tellingly, she was a quick starter who advanced rapidly.


began her rise in the world (after Princeton, Oxford, Harvard) by clerking,

first, for Abner Mikva and then for Thurgood Marshall. And it has been

one of the strangest side shows of the Kagan hearings that the Republicans keep

beating up on Marshall, as if alienating Hispanics wasn't enough during the

Sotomayor hearings, they want to diss African Americans, too. Having a

literal African-American President hasn't yet seemed to have sunk in to their

conscious minds, just their unconscious ids. Well, Kagan's clerkships

lead to the U. of Chicago gig, which lead to the Clinton White House, which

lead to Harvard, etc.


what this proves, at least to me, is the kid sister line of advancement, where

men keep pushing you forward, figures of authority more than father figures,

because of your abilities, competence and comradeship. Marshall, Clinton,

and his surrogates, Larry Summers et. Alia, which, for Kagan, leads to Harvard

Law and, eventually, after Summers implodes, to its Deanship. Obama then

taps her to be Solicitor General. Working in the White House is a

common gateway to the Supreme Court. William Rehnquist was working for AG

John Mitchell when Nixon appointed Rehnquist to the Court. Thurgood Marshall

had been Lyndon Johnson's Solicitor General.


does this all mean? Well, it depends who's asking. For being Dean

of Harvard Law, Kagan is very lightly published, so lightly she may not

have been given tenure at other law schools not as assured of their own

preeminence. It shows the force of proximity to power and how quickly it

can lead to top jobs. It actually replaces some of the usual

qualifications. It's amazing what gets overlooked once you're at the top. But

it also owes something to the kid sister personality, the way it works easily

with men of power. Up, up and away. Given the era, or cultural

moment I've been talking about that hatched the kid sister, another phrase of

that time comes to mind that fits someone like Kagan: she has a "good

personality." Good personality was supposed to be some salve for

lacking good looks.


can a good personality lead to, even in 2010? Well, the Supreme Court,

for one place, if nothing else.


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