Washington -- ON THE "Tonight" show the other night comedian Jay Leno told of a poll-taker testing opinion on whether Clarence Thomas should be confirmed for the Supreme Court. As it happened, the pollster called Thomas himself, Leno recounted, "but he said he had no opinion."
It is axiomatic in American politics today that the politician who becomes the butt of jokes on the "Tonight" show is in a peck of trouble. In this case, the butt is not just Thomas but the whole charade of the confirmation process that is being played out here these days.
The voters have been watching Thomas repeatedly claim he has no opinion on the abortion question and Roe vs. Wade. And they have been watching Robert Gates, President Bush's nominee for director of Central Intelligence, insist repeatedly that he cannot recall conversations about the Iran-contra affair that other CIA officials seem to remember in some detail.
In both cases, the nominees are expected to be confirmed by comfortable margins. But their performances have strained the credulity of even the most gullible Americans -- and contributed to the pervasive cynicism in the electorate about government and politics.
If Clarence Thomas really has no opinion on abortion, he must be one of the few Americans in his age bracket to have managed to avoid confronting that issue.
It is one thing for him to say, as he did, that he should not make a judgment on an issue, Roe v. Wade, likely to face the court shortly after he is confirmed. That is a legitimate position for any judicial nominee.
It is quite another thing, however, to behave as if you have been living in some plastic capsule shut off from the real world while the nation has debated the abortion issue with so much heat. Indeed, it would be a fair question to wonder whether anyone so intellectually incurious should serve on the Supreme Court.
The Gates case is just as ridiculous, and the voters know it. A new opinion poll shows that 58 percent of the people think he has not been telling the truth about what he knew about Iran-contra and when he knew it. By all accounts, Gates is an intelligent man with a reputation for paying close attention to detail in his previous assignments. But there were literally dozens of cases in Gates' written answers to questions and testimony in which he asserted that he couldn't recall what had happened at a particular time.
In this case, the question would be whether we should have a CIA director with either a terrible memory or the lack of bureaucratic sophistication that allowed him to miss his agency's involvement in something as bizarre as the Iran-contra affair.
This hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, speak-no-evil strategy has been dictated by a White House recognition that both nominees were carrying some baggage that could prove explosive in the confirmation process. Thomas had written and said some things that logically could be taken as evidence he is strongly against abortion rights; indeed, if were not, he never would have been nominated. Gates had been not just a functionary but deputy director of the CIA during the Iran-Contra period.
So the nominees' common strategy was to muddy the waters with elaborate obfuscation that might make them look foolish, as it did, but would not provide the smoking gun on which their confirmations would be put in jeopardy. That is precisely what has happened, and it is also the reason they are the butts of jokes and such obvious contributors to popular cynicism about the system.
The problem, of course, is that no one can prove Clarence Thomas has been spending his spare time debating the abortion issue with friends and associates. During the hearings he dismissed even his well-documented advocacy of "natural law" as a kind of idle speculation by a "part-time political theorist" rather than some deeply held belief that would govern his conduct on the Supreme Court. And if Gates insists he has "no recollection" of this conversation or that meeting, who is to prove the contrary.
But the result has been the disheartening spectacle of nominees for two of the highest positions in the government appearing to be less than they must be. The White House and the senators on the two committees know the whole thing is a meaningless ritual dance. And, as the polls and Jay Leno have demonstrated, so does the public.