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July 5, 2010

Charmed, I’m Sure

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

As the Senate Judiciary Committee sets July 13 as the date to vote on her nomination to the Supreme Court, “charming” is emerging as the unlikely frame for Elena Kagan’s performance last week. Slate sums it up when they proclaim that Kagan has “charmed and disarmed every step of the way.” The images the hearing produced echo that theme, with an unprecedented number of shots showing the nominee laughing and smiling. This photo features a relaxed Kagan, leaning forward toward the Senators  like one would lean into a conversation during a date. The hand placed coquettishly on her cheek enhances the effect. That this frame has taken hold is notable, given the media’s track record of caricaturing competitive single career women who do not necessarily conform to traditional notions of beauty (think Janet Reno).

Upon closer examination, however, the image suggests the progress women have made in terms of managing their political personae. On one hand, Kagan’s attire is a throwback to the 80s power suit—its serious, somber shade softened only by the requisite strand of pearls. Her understated makeup and cropped hair similarly invoke gravitas. In a previous era, this formula would have effectively allowed her to perform her credibility but would simultaneously have branded her a hard-edged careerist . . . or worse. Today, Kagan is being lauded not only for her competence fielding questions but also for her genuine appeal.


  • DennisQ

    Some of the senators on the Judiciary Committee are just so full of themselves that Kagan’s preparation for the hearings had to take this into account. Senator Coburn in particular thinks he’s God’s gift to humanity. Kagan let him pontificate, then gave him modest, direct answers. At the end of one round of questioning, Coburn blamed the expansion of the Commerce clause for the demise of Western Civilization. His time ran out before he got to whatever question he’d planned to ask.

    It was a deft performance, one that I was glad to see. She handled the conceited Senator Hatch so gracefully that she’ll have no trouble with the pompous Scalia or the equally conceited Roberts. People have criticized the Kagan appointment as evidence that Obama leans too heavily on personal acquaintences. I didn’t see any evidence that Kagan was chosen for any reason other than her ability.

    The Republican game plan to pigeonhole Kagan as some kind of foreigner backfired on them. I heard a comment that the Upper West Side is just as much America’s heartland as anywhere in the midwest. I’ve never met Kagan personally, but she came across as somebody I know. I found myself trusting her, which is a lot more than I can say for most members of the Supreme Court.

  • Nichola Gutgold

    Very deft observations, Dr. Anderson. I liked how Kagan self deprecatingly said a few times “stumped again” when asked several questions. Kagan was impressive in those hearings. Your analysis is impressive here.

  • Rebecca

    Black robes would suit her. She will listen judiciously and give direct answers. She’s donned the costume already.

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