The great gesturer

Why do so many Senators persist during judicial confirmation hearings in making speeches rather than asking questions? This bipartisan phenomenon plagued the Roberts and Alito hearings, and reared its head again today in the proceedings for Sotomayor.

But why? Is it because Senators just like to talk or because they are afraid that the witness will get the better of them in a true question and answer format?

Whatever the reason, substituting speeches for questions is a sure fire way to (a) let the witness off the hook and (b) make the witness appear more sympathetic than the Senator. For Senators hoping to derail a nominee, questions represent the only way to accomplish this in the hearing room. For Senators hoping make up their mind about a nominee (assuming there are any such Senators) questions represent the best way to accomplish this in the hearing room. “Give your ears a chance,” as the old saying goes.

Lindsey Graham, who says he is undecided about Sotomayor, demonstrated the value of good questioning today. His barrage of pointed, simple questions had Sotomayor slightly off balance at times, and stretched her more than any of the other Senators I saw (but I did not see them all). Let’s be honest and admit that Graham is just plain good at questioning.

Unfortunately, Graham couldn’t resist sprinkling a few Grahamisms — e.g., “I like you, for what it’s worth, and it ought to matter to you since I might vote for you.” In addition, towards the end, Graham’s questions lost their sharpness and drifted into sentimentality — e.g., “can you understand why this would bother some people.”

Worst of all, Graham signaled once again that he is just itching to vote for Sotomayor not on the merits, but as a gesture. Yesterday, as I noted, Graham tossed around the idea of voting for Sotomayor in order to revive the “good old days” when the president’s judicial nominees received plenty of deference. But, of course, voting for Sotomayor will not revive this practice among Democrats the next time they consider a Republican nominee. Graham surely knows this, but doesn’t care. For him the gesture is everything.

Today, it was another gesture that excited Graham. After questioning Sotomayor about her “wise Latina” speeches, Graham proclaimed that the hearings could do the country some good if the committee decides to give Sotomayor “a second chance” by overlooking these speeches.

Never mind that Sotomayor hasn’t asked for a second chance — she insists that the speech was fine, and indeed inspirational, but might have been worded better. Never mind that no other member of the committee will sign on to Graham’s proposed “second chance” project — the Democrats say there’s nothing to forgive; the rest of the Republicans are going to vote against Sotomayor. Never mind that the committee Dems have played, and will play in the future, the game of “gotcha” based on items far less substantial and worrisome than Sotomayor’s speeches.

This isn’t about Sotomayor or the committee; this is about Lindsey Graham making a gesture.

Gestures are for ham actors, not U.S. Senators. Graham may be in the wrong profession.

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