Elena Kagan, the "Establishment" candidate?

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Just after Election Day the fall of her senior year at Princeton, Elena Kagan published an opinion piece in the campus newspaper recounting how she had wept and gotten drunk on vodka at a campaign gathering for a liberal Brooklyn congresswoman who had unexpectedly lost a race for the Senate.

Ronald Reagan was heading to the White House, and Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman -- a champion for women's causes for whom Kagan had toiled 14-hour days as a campaign press assistant -- was leaving Capitol Hill. Kagan, then 20 and imbued with the liberal principles on which she had been raised, said she was flirting with despair that "there was no longer any place for the ideals we held. . . . I wonder how all this could possibly have happened and where on earth I'll be able to get a job next year."

Her piece for the Daily Princetonian on Holtzman's 1980 defeat was a rare moment, then and since, in which Kagan publicly described her emotions and politics in such strikingly personal tones. In the elite spheres of academia and government in which she has learned and worked, Kagan, 50, has more typically exhibited an analytical style, a knack for forging consensus, a pragmatism rather than a passion for her own ideas.

Her life experiences and intellectual style leave open the question of whether President Obama's choice for the Supreme Court would, if confirmed by the Senate, prove the counterweight liberals seek to the overt conservatism of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

"She's much more of a lawyer than a partisan," said Geoffrey R. Stone, a University of Chicago Law School professor who was dean when Kagan was hired there. "She is more interested as a scholar in thinking through hard issues rather than advocating particular ideological or political perspectives."

Within the orbits of law and intellectual thought, hers has been an establishment course. The product of two Ivy League universities and Oxford, she clerked for a leading appellate judge and a Supreme Court luminary, Justice Thurgood Marshall. She worked briefly for a blue-chip Washington law firm. Since then, she has alternated between two of the nation's foremost law schools -- Chicago and Harvard -- and the federal government, scaling to the heights of both realms. Last year, Obama chose her as the U.S. solicitor general -- the top attorney for the federal government before the Supreme Court she has now been selected to join....

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