Sam Alito didn't get it

David Hoppe

An awful lot was said during the confirmation hearings to determine Samuel Alito's qualifications for serving on the U.S. Supreme Court. The transcripts from those proceedings will undoubtedly run to thousands of pages. For me, though, the most interesting words spoken came on the very first day, when Alito made his opening statement. He was talking about what it was like to go to college, in his case Princeton, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Here is what he said:

"It was a time of turmoil at colleges and universities. And I saw some very smart people and very privileged people behaving irresponsibly. And I couldn't help making a contrast between some of the worst of what I saw on the campus and the good sense and the decency of the people back in my community."

Alito delivered this recollection with complete confidence that the shorthand he was using to describe his college experience would be instantly grasped by his listeners. In a single stroke, he identified himself as a person who came of age during the 1960s, and disavowed that period. Samuel Alito was not part of the "turmoil" that swept colleges and universities in those days. He, unlike the smart and privileged people he found himself among, was not irresponsible.

Alito was a member of the class of '72, which means that he started his college education in the fall of 1968. This was a particularly intense time to be on campus. The Vietnam war was raging. The previous spring and summer had been rocked by a series of traumatic events, including the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. There were race riots in American cities, including the burning of entire neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. In August, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago was upset when police attacked anti-war protesters in Grant Park, starting what was later declared a "police riot."

A year later, when Alito would have been in his second year on campus, it was revealed that the Nixon Administration was engaged in a secret bombing campaign in Cambodia. Student strikes and teach-ins took place on campuses across the country. There was a national march on Washington and four students were shot and killed by National Guardsmen at Kent State University in Ohio.

That happened to be my freshman year. The college I attended in Minnesota ended classes early that spring because so many students were engaged in anti-war activities; it was as if a bitter wind had blown through our community and scattered many of us to the four corners of the nation.

It was a difficult and tumultuous time, to be sure. There were excesses on all sides. Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson's vice president, was made a professor at my school and, shortly after the first semester started, his office door was sealed shut with barbed wire by some students I knew. This may be the sort of thing Alito referred to as "behaving irresponsibly." At the time, though, rude as it may have been, it also seemed like a theatrically apt way for people with no power (and the prospect of having their draft numbers called) to put their anger in the face of one of the war's most prominent apologists. To his credit, Humphrey seemed to take it in stride.

Which is more than we can say for a lot of people. When he glibly summed up the upheavals of the late '60s and early '70s as a period of social irresponsibility, Samuel Alito spoke in favor of a version of America's history that's become a kind of conventional wisdom. Arguably the single largest project undertaken by the right-wing in this country has been the demonization of virtually everything that happened here between the birth of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs in 1964 and the election of Ronald Reagan. According to this version of events, the country went to hell in a handbasket during this time. Then Reagan came along and saved us from ourselves.

A lot of regular folks who should know better have bought this line. Maybe they got into trouble or hurt themselves with drugs or sex. Or perhaps they strayed from the high expectations for career and material success their parents instilled in them, only to panic later when they found themselves broke or somehow unfulfilled. In any event, these people were probably nodding in agreement when they heard Alito characterize his college days. Apart from a few Golden Oldies, that time is better off gone and forgotten as far as they're concerned.

Samuel Alito was playing to this crowd in his opening statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee. To them, he probably sounded reasonable. But I remember something besides bad behavior about that time he so briefly alluded to. The first principle of those days boiled down to just two words: question authority. That was a good idea then, when a president was waging an undeclared war overseas and illegally spying on Americans here at home. It's still a good idea. Unfortunately, I'm afraid that Samuel Alito didn't get it in the old days - and he doesn't get it now.


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