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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

"My story? Okay. It was never easy for me . . . "

On the twentieth anniversary of the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, npr's Nina Totenberg reported that the The Thomas hearings altered the landscape of the Q & A and established the "Pinpoint strategy," named for the Georgia town where Thomas was raised: "At his confirmation hearing, Thomas spoke of the grim poverty of his early childhood, describing how he and his family 'lived in one room in a tenement . ... And we shared a common bathroom in the backyard, which was unworkable and unusable.'" Totenberg noted that in subsequent confirmation hearings, now-Justices Alito, Sotomayer and Roberts employed a similar strategy, detailing "humble beginnings" in answers to the questions of the panel. The Pinpoint strategy does not strike me as a bit new in politics, and perhaps it is the oldest political strategy. But is this strategy only twenty years young in use during judicial confirmation hearings to the U.S. Supreme Court? How vital to confirmation is it to regale the Senate with a Horatio Alger story  - and does it make a difference in the result?

Posted by DBorman on October 11, 2011 at 02:02 PM | Permalink


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You seem to be making a different point than the post, that some candidates have tried to make themselves seem like the Average Joe (or Average Jane). Yes, that's true, but I don't see how that relates to the Pinpoint strategy, which I have generally thought was the presentation of Thomas as someone who had overcome incredible odds to rise from poverty and discrimination.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Oct 12, 2011 12:10:45 PM

Well, no, some spoke of "humble beginnings," not "grim poverty" as such.

And, Sotomayor did refer to them with more than a few sentences. Her mom was an important symbol and visually and otherwise she was part of the message than just referring to a couple sentences suggests. And, we should also note that part of the "strategy" would be how the administration as a whole sells the candidate. Her humble origins and success story -- Latina made good -- was part of it.

Again, "humble beginnings" is not the same as "grim poverty," so Alito's message that he didn't come from money, but average perhaps working class stock, going to public school and so forth, seems notable. Also, since "questions" were referenced, what they said in their opening statement alone doesn't seem to be at issue. Finally, Norman Rockwell has various images of people who look pretty "humble" to me. The fact "humble origins" are idealized is part of the point.

So, even if the post exaggerated somewhat that reply, from someone who was there at least one hearing, doesn't quite seem to do it either.

Posted by: Joe | Oct 12, 2011 9:00:49 AM

Did Alito, Sotomayor and Roberts really stress the grim poverty of their childhoods in their comfirmation hearings? Sotomayor had two sentences of her opening statement that were along those lines:

I grew up in modest circumstances in a Bronx housing project. My father, a factory worker with a third grade education, passed away when I was nine years old.

Alito said in his opening statement that his parents were poor, but he gave a rather happy description of his world growing up:

It was a warm but definitely an unpretentious down-to-earth community. Most of the adults in the neighborhood were not college graduates. I attended the public schools. In my spare time I played baseball and other sports with my friends. And I have happy memories and strong memories of those days, and good memories of the good sense and the decency of my friends and my neighbors.

Roberts drew a picture of his childhood that was something from a Normal Rockwell portrait:

I think all of us retain from the days of our youth certain enduring images. For me those images are of the endless fields of Indiana stretching to the horizon, punctuated only by an isolated silo or a barn.

And as I grew older, those endless fields came to represent for me the limitless possibilities of our great land. Growing up I never imagined that I would be here in this historic room nominated to be the chief justice. But now that I am here I recall those endless fields with their promise of infinite possibilities.

That seems pretty far from a "Pinpoint strategy."

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Oct 11, 2011 7:06:10 PM

The hearings only were televised and made into a big deal on a regular basis in the 1980s. I wouldn't be surprised if O'Connor's life story was put out there. Stevens in his book said that individual meetings with senators became the normal practice with his nomination and that Goldwater might have voted for him when he found out Stevens flew his own plane. I also don't think of it in a partisan way. If you do have a humble upbringing it adds color, so it would be used, as noted, as it was by both parties.

Posted by: Joe | Oct 11, 2011 5:13:57 PM

I don't think it makes a difference in result, but it does make a difference in the public optics of the hearings, which are more at the forefront than they were in the 24-hour news cycle. And I think that's true for all nominees, regardless of party. Kagan's story was that she had no story--although, as I argued at the time, that in itself was a story about how a group of people melded into U.S. society.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Oct 11, 2011 3:37:31 PM

I think it's fairly necessary for nominees made by Republican presidents, because the argument is that they favor "rich" people and "corporations."

On the other side you have the wealth of Ginsburg or the privilege of Kagan. They are perceived as fighting for the little guy so they don't need to make these stories.

Posted by: AndyK | Oct 11, 2011 2:38:22 PM

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