Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Concerned Alumni of Princeton

For the most part, I'm pretty comfortable with the track record of Samuel Alito, and with his performance before the Senate Judiciary Committee. I think he's pretty sincere about his claims to want to judge each matter with an open mind and according to the law, and (despite what partisans will claim) I find scant evidence of ideology in his opinions.

The only thing that makes me a bit queasy is this business about the Concerned Alumni of Princeton (CAP), an organization that Alito claimed on a 1985 job application to be a member of. My reaction to that was visceral. CAP and its magazine Prospect were well-known to Princeton students of the early 1980s (of which I was one) as a group of ultra-reactionary aging alumni who wished nothing more than to roll the University back to its days of being an exclusive homogenous bastion of white, Protestant, upper-class, prep-school-educated men. You could sense a University-wide groan and eye-roll every time CAP founder Asa Bushnell '21 had one of his curmudgeonly missives published in the Princeton Alumni Weekly bemoaning the presence of women and minorities on campus. You could excuse an old codger like Bushnell on account of advanced age, but others like Alito's classmate, T. Harding Jones '72, who edited Prospect through the 1970s, are harder to fathom. Not that there weren't Princeton grads in the 1970s who were conservative, but CAP was reactionary -- think John Birch Society or even Flat Earth Society reactionary -- and certainly by the 1980s was well-known at least in Princeton circles for being so. There were those like former Senator Bill Bradley '65, who joined CAP when it first formed, but later disassociated themselves when its reactionary nature became clear. I've heard that Senator Frist '74 also repudiated the group. And after Jones stepped down as editor, the Concerned Alumni were never able to find another Princeton grad willing to edit their journal.

It does seem plausible to me that Alito put CAP on that job application for specific networking purposes. And it also seems plausible that he wasn't particularly involved or even familiar with the group. (He certainly wasn't enough of a "concerned alumnus" to have written a cranky letter to the alumni magazine, as many of the others did, for if he had, it surely would have surfaced by now.) While I can imagine him having reasons to join what seemed to be a conservative alumni organization, it would be surprising if he really knew what they were about. After all, CAP's ideal vision of Princeton would not have admitted Alito, the son of a working-class Catholic family. It's probably true, as Senator Kennedy charged, that he received Prospect and Princeton Alumni Weekly (PAW), and it's true that readers of those publications in the 1980s could not have been ignorant of CAP's nature. The false jump in Kennedy's logic, as most alumni must concede, is that receiving the PAW doesn't always mean that you read it.

Alito's selective-amnesiac testimony on the matter is also a bit disappointing. Everyone knows that "to the best of my recollection" and "I cannot remember" are testimony protocols which really mean "I refuse to answer on the grounds that it may embarrass me." This is the Senate Judiciary Committee at its most kabuki-theatrical. I'm disappointed that the man is willing to stretch the truth (and/or withhold the whole truth) on the stand, but on the other hand we all know that not to do so would be self-scuttling. Even if the truth is relatively innocuous (and I suspect it is), it could tarnish his dignity, against which the expectations are practically unrealistic. At least everyone on the panel understands the game. Even Republican Senator Lindsay Graham quipped something like, "oh, we believe you, sir. I just hope if I'm sitting before you on some future panel, you'll believe me when I say I don't remember Abramoff."

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