In the very first minutes of the very first day of the Clarence Thomas hearings, Joseph Biden flashed a toothy smile and assured Thomas of one thing:
"I do not deny the right of the president to appoint a conservative [to the Supreme Court]," Senator Biden, D-Del., said. "As a matter of fact, I'd be dumbfounded if he did not."
A small laugh rippled through the hearing room. Joe Biden was being candid. Which is pretty rare on Capitol Hill.
George Bush is, after all, a conservative, anti-abortion president. So what kind of justice would he appoint to the Supreme Court? A pro-choice liberal? Of course not. And why should he?
It's not that Bush is being persnickety in his choice of Supreme Court nominees. Or that he is flexing his muscles to show off his constitutional powers.
Bush happens to believe in conservatism. He believes it is best for America. So why, when it comes to carrying out one of his most important duties, would he abandon that belief?
Yes, Bush could appoint a person who was neither a conservative nor a liberal. But, assuming such a person could be found, would that better serve the nation?
Bush wouldn't think so. He believes he was elected largely because he embodied an ideology that the American people wanted. So why not continue to give that to the nation in the form of a Supreme Court nominee?
And would a liberal president do any differently? Had Michael Dukakis been elected president, would he not have appointed liberals to the court?
So Biden's statement that Bush had a "right" to appoint a conservative was right on the money. Still, it was unusually candid for a selection process based on avoiding candor.
A great charade is acted out by all sides. The president, while trying to make absolutely sure his nominees are anti-abortion, takes great pride in saying he never actually asks them how they feel about abortion.
Liberal senators, while claiming that they do not oppose nominees based on ideology, try as hard as they can to provoke conservative nominees into making gaffes.
And the nominees have learned that honestly expressing their views wins no points. (Ask Robert Bork.) It is far better for them to duck and cover. Far better to say you have no opinion than to have opinions that are unpopular with a majority of the senators who sit on the Judiciary Committee.
So Thomas tells the committee he has no opinion on Roe vs. NTC Wade. Is it possible for a mentally alert adult to have no opinion on Roe vs. Wade?
I do not think so. But Thomas is far better off getting into an argument over whether he has no opinion rather than getting into an argument over that opinion.
The professional handler, recruited by the White House to see Thomas through the confirmation process, has a political background. So he knows there is no reward for candor in politics.
During the second presidential debate, Michael Dukakis gave a candid response to a question on whether he would favor the death penalty for the imaginary killer and rapist of his wife.
Dukakis, who had been rehearsed to deliver a safe response, instead answered by stating what he actually believed: He did not favor the death penalty for anyone.
Dukakis' reward for this moment of candor was evisceration by members of the press, who almost universally agreed that he had blown his response by giving one that was too cold.
That Dukakis really and truly did not believe in the death penalty had nothing to do with it. He had given the wrong response.
And why should Clarence Thomas run that risk?
His record, what there is of it, is there for the senators and the press and the public to pick over.
As to his political ideology, we can assume he is a conservative because he has been nominated by a conservative.
Which, Biden said, the president has a right to do.
At least that is what Biden said at the beginning of the hearing process. At the end, in casting his vote against Thomas, Biden said:
"For me, because of where the court currently stands, the costs of adding yet another ultra-conservative member could be extremely high indeed. . . ."
In other words, the president has a right to appoint conservatives because they are conservatives, but Joe Biden has a right to vote against them for exactly the same reason.
And I agree with both positions.
But I don't understand why Biden is now pledging to hold hearings to discuss the future of the hearing process. Biden and others say they are frustrated that they could not get Thomas to answer their questions.
What they really wanted was for Thomas to make some huge mistake or take some really controversial position so they could have a better excuse for voting against him.
But Thomas did not give them that excuse, and now they are angry. Thomas knew his appearance was really a performance, but a performance where it was best to deliver as few lines as possible rather than to be a star.
"Maybe we need new ground rules," Biden said.
Yeah, maybe. Maybe we could strap the nominee into the witness chair and attach electrodes to him and try to torture him into talking.
I'm not sure we would learn much more that way, but it would be a heck of a more exciting show.