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Secret Passion

'We did not want a fight," Ralph Neas was saying to a reporter on his cell phone. "However, if he picks a fight, we are ready." It was the evening of July 19, less than an hour before word leaked that George W. Bush would nominate John Roberts to the Supreme Court. Neas was sitting in the green room at MSNBC, waiting for his appearance on "Hardball." It was the first of three TV studios he would blaze through in the next four hours as a go-to pundit on the nomination. As president of People for the American Way (PFAW), the liberal civil rights group with immense influence among both grassroots activists and the Senate majordomos, Neas may pose the greatest threat to Roberts's path into history.

And he loves it. Oh, he'll tell you it's a "myth" that judicial activists relish confirmation battles. He'll remind you that everything he holds dear is at stake. He'll insist it's never fun trying to stop someone from getting a job. But clearly it can be. There is a theatrical quality to such fights in Washington that makes short-term national celebrities out of certain activists, such as Neas, who normally spend their time slogging in the C-SPAN trenches. Like a cicada, Neas surfaces once every few years to sing his liberal fight songs for a national audience. And the irony of his life is that the bigger the threat to his ideological worldview, the more enjoyable his job becomes.

Having finished his call--one of perhaps 20 he would make to reporters throughout the night--Neas began to pace the green room like a star college athlete on draft day. After a long day of obsessive rumor-mongering about "the two Ediths" and J. Michael Luttig's suspiciously dapper outfit, the anticipation of Bush's actual pick was growing unbearable. Neas began free-associating out loud. "You know who would be a real surprise? Miguel Estrada!" he offered, referring to the bitterly contested 2001 Bush appellate court nominee.

Into the green room sauntered Ben Ginsberg, the Republican superlawyer with whom Neas would be sparring on-air in a few minutes. Quite unlike Neas, Ginsberg radiated total calm. It felt highly symbolic of today's Washington: the self-assured Republican who knows all the secrets and the manic, paranoid Democrat awaiting the next unpleasant surprise.

"So, Ben, you think Estrada's got a chance?"

"Yeah, everyone's got a chance," Ginsberg said, flashing a Mona Lisa grin. He filled a cup of water and strolled off.

There was a silence, which the hyper-talkative Neas felt compelled to fill. "I predicted [the retirement of] O'Connor six weeks ago!" he declared. "I don't remember saying it--but someone at The New York Times told me it's in their notes." Neas departed and then emerged a few minutes later with another scrap. "Ben Ginsberg said it will be a surprise!"

You might expect Neas to be calmer in such circumstances. After all, the 59-year-old is a veteran of nine Supreme Court nominations over 30 years and was the main organizer of the liberal D-Day against Robert Bork's 1987 nomination. He's tight with key Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats. Ted Kennedy once referred to him on the Senate floor as "the 101st senator for civil rights." The Wall Street Journal recently editorialized that, "[w]hen it comes to judicial nominations, Mr. Neas might as well be the one and only Senator. The 10 Democrats on the Judiciary Committee salute and follow [his] orders." During a 1991 battle over a civil rights bill, the first President Bush derided Neas as "some self-appointed guy up there in Washington who calls all the shots." Even if he won't say so, such insults clearly delight Neas; his official bio proudly notes that "he has been personally criticized more than 50 times" by the Journal.

Look for plenty more Neas-bashing in the weeks to come. While his punditry is the most visible part of his job--on Tuesday night his call sheet featured messages from 17 different reporters--it is PFAW's organizational tactics that will have the greatest impact on the upcoming struggle over Roberts. "He has an amazing ability to translate his talking points into comments on the Senate floor," one aide to a Republican Judiciary Committee member says. "He speaks, Dems jump." In what may or may not have been an example of this, later in the evening, I showed Neas an e-mailed statement about Roberts from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, which echoed many of the points Neas himself had been making all night. "Sound familiar?" he asked me with a knowing smile.

PFAW's reach extends well beyond the Senate's corridors. Neas's group boasts 400,000 followers who receive its e-mail alerts, and it guides more than 100 affiliates in its judicial coalition. PFAW also has a crack research staff on par with a presidential campaign's opposition-research team that is already poring through the entirety of Roberts's record. Neas will also have millions in advertising dollars to play with. PFAW aired $5 million in ads during the recent struggle over the Senate "nuclear option," a sum that could easily multiply during the Roberts fight. Neas has assembled a team of Clintonites and Democratic judicial veterans to supplement his group's full-time staff in the weeks ahead, including former Clinton White House spokesman Joe Lockhart, Kerry presidential campaign strategists John Marttila and Mike Donilon, and Ricki Seidman, who oversaw the 1992 Clinton campaign war room. Also, PFAW co-founder Norman Lear himself will help shape its media strategy. (The mastermind of "All in the Family" and "Good Times!" is "a brilliant communications person," Neas notes.)

Fittingly, Neas was on live television--bickering with Ginsberg on "Hardball"--when he learned that John Roberts would be the most important person in his life this summer. He wasted little time joining the fight, warning of "some serious problems." Minutes later, in a chauffeured sedan on his way back to his office, Neas expanded his case for a CNN producer on his cell phone. "Our main statement tonight is going to focus on how disappointed we are that the president didn't name someone in the mold of Sandra Day O'Connor. What we know about John Roberts is that he is a darling of the radical right." He repeated this line over and over throughout the night. At one point, Neas did an interview with ABC News at PFAW headquarters. A television nearby was tuned to CNN, which was airing an interview with a Republican senator over a chyron that read, PEOPLE FOR THE AMERICAN WAY: "VERY DISAPPOINTED." "What's your reaction to John Roberts?" the ABC producer asked. "We were very disappointed," Neas began.

But Neas was not incapable of adapting his sound bites. Later in the evening, I handed him a BlackBerry with a posting from the conservative blog that declared, "Conservatives love Bush tonight. Make no mistake about it. Certain conservative leaders, if they were not men, would be offering to bear further children for GWB tonight." Neas seemed not so much spooked as relieved to see this. "So it's not just me!" he said. Soon after, I heard him amend one of his stock quotes for a reporter, "If you look at the blogs right now, John Roberts is a darling of the radical right."

It was evident that Neas delighted in all this punditry and dashing about. He was like a candidate on the stump--even exhibiting the politician's habit of fastidiously thanking various security guards and limo drivers. (Neas has some experience with this; he made an ill-fated 1998 bid for Congress in Maryland.) At one point, I asked Neas how these nomination fights had changed over the years. He noted that, during the Bork wars, CNN was still in its infancy, and there was no such thing as e-mail or blogs. "Compared to 1987, everything's at warp speed," he said. Then he paused. "'Everything at warp speed' is not bad! I've never used that before."

As the night wrapped up, there was a feeling that the battle royale for which Neas had seemed primed might not be panning out. Most Senate Democrats were holding their fire, saying they would wait to ask tough questions in Roberts's confirmation hearings. On CNN, Aaron Brown had even asked Neas on-air if liberals really wanted to fight. Walking from the CNN studio to the sedan waiting to ferry him to the "Charlie Rose Show," Neas didn't seem willing to entertain the thought. "There's an ebb and flow to every nomination," he told me. He noted that people had expected the nomination of Alberto Gonzales as attorney general to be "a slam dunk," before Democrats began to rally against him.

"And Bolton," his press aide, Josh Glasstetter, offered.

"And Bolton!" Neas said, pleased by the thought. There was still hope.

Michael Crowley is a senior editor at The New Republic.