Gil Troy: A Careerist Conundrum of Supreme Proportions

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.]

For New Yorkers born in the 1960s, U.S. President Barack Obama’s nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court triggered the frissons of pride and envy many of us feel when someone our age and from our humble background makes it.

But Ms. Kagan’s careerist conundrum is particularly fascinating. Did this woman with the perfect Princeton-Oxford-Harvard résumé somehow lose her voice and her soul while climbing professionally as deliberately as she did?...

And yet, Ms. Kagan’s résumé seems too perfect. She may have forgotten the essential message of Free to Be … You and Me’s title song: “Every boy in this land grows to be his own man. In this land, every girl grows to be her own woman.” This woman, who posed in judicial robes for her Hunter College High School yearbook, may have been too calculating in climbing to the top. She has taken remarkably few public stands, entered into surprisingly few public controversies for a woman of her prominence and power. Even her academic writings focused on safe analyses of administrative law while other law professors debated issues passionately.

In this way, Ms. Kagan reveals she is one of Bork’s Babies, a product of the searing battle that resulted in the Senate’s rejecting Ronald Reagan’s Supreme Court nominee Judge Robert H. Bork in 1987. At the time, ambitious law clerks like Ms. Kagan watched how critics vacuumed through Mr. Bork’s past, blasting decades-old articles he authored, even snooping into his video rentals seeking something embarrassing – turned out Mr. Bork liked Fred Astaire movies. From then on, many of my Washington-oriented friends openly worried about their “paper trails.” Their moral calculus was blunted, replaced by the ubiquitous question, “How will it look in my confirmation hearings?”...

...[A]s a professor and a parent, I wonder: Do I advise my students and my children that they are “free to be you and me?” Or, to go as far as some want to go, must they squelch their voices, round their edges, and be the corporate careerists that excessive media scrutiny in a polarizing political culture demands they be?

comments powered by Disqus