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Confirmation Nation

Has reality TV sucked the drama out of confirmation hearings?

The best news I’ve heard in weeks is that New Haven firefighter Frank Ricci would appear as a witness in Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings. Ricci, as anyone within cable-TV viewing range of Patrick Buchanan now knows, is the guy who filed a lawsuit accusing his city of reverse discrimination after it threw out the results of a promotion exam because an insufficient number of minorities passed the test. And Sotomayor is the federal judge who let a ruling against Ricci stand, leaving it to the high court to rule in his favor. The showdown--as it will inevitably be billed--will no doubt play as high drama: In one corner, the hard-working white guy, screwed by affirmative action. In the other corner, the brilliant Latina jurist who benefited from it. Bring on the culture warriors.

As a longtime confirmation junkie, I was thrilled about this prospect. With hot-button matters of race and privilege front and center, not to mention the bipartisan audience of deep-pocketed activists chanting for blood, the sessions could feature the sort of televisual drama that has made the judicial nomination proceedings--which ought to be plodding exercises in legal analysis--some of the most compelling political theater in modern America. After years of boring judicial hearings, I eagerly awaited a return to the golden age of Confirmation Kabuki--a battle royale between those who would paint the judge as the American Dreamer of the South Bronx and those who would cast her as the Quota Queen of the West Village.

But if the tepid-run up to the hearing and first day of questioning are any indication, the confirmation process is likely to be more seminar than sideshow. Ruy Teixeira argued that the absence of Thunderdome-style anticipation is a function of a culture war gone quiet. To me, the ennui has less to do with the prospective contents of the hearing, and more to do with the national culture in which they’re taking place. In the age of Drudge and reality TV and twittering congressmen, the old gladiatorial magic of a confirmation face-off--with all those old quotes yanked out of context, all those hyperbolic speeches untethered by reality--no longer seems quite so unique. Previously a compelling interruption to the mundane regular news cycle, such theatrics now are the regular news cycle. In the process, hearings that might once have riveted the country now play like Project Runway, only with uglier models.

You could argue that the televised congressional hearing was the original reality-TV showdown. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that the rise of the hearing-room as a major stage for political drama coincided with the rise of television as the major medium for political news. On TV, the most compelling political stories are those that involve an individual protagonist, preferably one who can stand in for a broader constituency. A hearing, with all those cameras focused on one witness at a time, is the perfect venue to create such a character.

And to a political geek coming of age in the 1980s, there was no better stage than Senate Judiciary Committee. With the prospect of a lifetime appointment and the chance to settle polarizing issues that elected politicians couldn’t address, Supreme Court nominations were the ultimate source of hearing-room drama--Oliver North, with consequences. Like a baseball fan studying his team’s old-time World Series runs, I read up on distant battles like the back-to-back rejections of ultraconservative Nixon nominees Clement Haynsworth and Harrold Carswell. As a 9th grader, I was entranced by Teddy Kennedy’s legendary floor speech against Robert Bork, where he warned that “women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government, and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens.”

Four years later, the Clarence Thomas hearings--spawning “I Believe Anita” buttons, scholarly books, and a run on Long Dong Silver videos--represented the theatrical peak of the senatorial hearing as cultural spectacle. The battle turned on its non-stop drama: Attack, innuendo, rapid response, distraction, destruction. It’s hard to remember that those things weren’t always baked into the daily scrum of both politics and popular culture.

But the show was short-lived. While quotidian politics embraced Thomas-style melodrama during the years of GOP war on Bill Clinton, Supreme Court confirmation sessions actually cleaned themselves up--or, rather, became sufficiently stage-managed that they never went off the rails. The four since Thomas’ have been remarkably civil. This didn’t necessarily make them less interesting; for the true confirmation devotee, the post-Thomas hearings provided a compelling chance to play armchair strategist, gaming out the tactics the would-be justices would use to avoid doing anything memorable. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was cautious, John Roberts was humble, and no national icons were created along their paths to confirmation. The exciting prospect of a committee blow-up over Harriet Miers died when her nomination was yanked.

But perhaps we have changed as much as Washington has. In explaining why confirmation battles have lost their drama, more significant than this self-policing is the fact that this sort of inside-baseball analysis is now commonplace in everyday life, in and out of politics: We watch Hardball not for the substance of people’s arguments, but for how they’re posturing around the day’s issues; we game out American Idol more or less the same way. There’s no shortage of opportunity to watch groups of variously informed experts sit in judgment of ambitious nobodies grasping for their dreams. And as TV gives way to other media, those variously informed experts include ourselves: In the heyday of the television era, ordinary citizens had to rely on others--say, hearing-room antagonists like Thomas and Hill--to act out a divided society’s symbolically charged confrontations. In the vast interactive universe of the internet, we do it ourselves, all day long. American discourse, in the end, has become one big, permanent, unruly confirmation hearing.

So even with an unexpected culture-war flare-up, don’t expect much excitement about the hearings that started this week. If Ricci and his supporters want to transfix a new generation of hearing obsessives, they will have to not simply outshout Sotomayor’s squad, but make themselves heard above the din of our Confirmation Nation. Maybe he can sing like Susan Boyle.

Michael Schaffer is the author of One Nation Under Dog.