Chuck Hagel and the nomination pageant

By Jack Shafer
January 8, 2013

I can feign as much excitement as anybody in the press corps when the president nominates someone to a vacancy in the Cabinet or the Supreme Court. But when deadline time comes, I really don’t care who gets nominated; unless there are outstanding warrants for the arrests of the nominees, the president should be allowed to hire and fire, as long as we can fire him.

The rest of the press pack, alas, does not have that luxury. They must tackle every nomination with the same fervor they gave to their previous nomination stories, which isn’t as difficult as it may seem. All they need to do is update and rearrange their old copy to confirm with Shafer’s First Law of Journalistic Thermodynamics, which states, “Copy can be cannot be created or destroyed, it can only change form.”

A full three months before President Barack Obama got around to nominating former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel to head the Defense Department yesterday, the trial balloons had been lofted to test Hagel’s suitability to the position, and the press corps busied itself dusting off its nomination-coverage templates and completing the blanks. Hagel’s nomination did not catch anyone by surprise; few such nominations do, since the White House and others maintain comprehensive short lists for the day a Washington appointee dies or resigns. By virtue of her age (79) and her announced intention to serve on the Supreme Court as long as her hero, Justice Louis Brandeis, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has encouraged White House short-listers to prepare for her departure and the arrival of a new justice by 2014.

The nomination pageant commences, then, long before the nomination is made, with both proponents and foes of the prospective nominees mapping the short-listers’ pasts, assembling preemptive offensive and defensive strategies, right down to pre-prepared speeches. For example, in 1987, Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) took to the Senate floor a mere 45-minutes after President Ronald Reagan nominated Robert Bork to the Supreme Court to give a speech in which he declared that “Robert Bork’s America is a land in which 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.”

Short- listers can be drafted into service, but usually they make themselves known to presidents, as Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) has been jockeying for the position of secretary of state ever since Hillary Clinton made known her intent to sit out the second Obama administration. A short-lister lines up support wherever he can find it, especially in the Senate, which is assigned to pass judgment on his nomination. (If at all possible, a nominee should have the good sense to have title of “Senator” somewhere in his resume because the Senate is reluctant — John Tower’s experience notwithstanding — to vote against one of its own.)

It’s OK to volunteer your availability, sotto voce. One should know what one wants and set out to get it. But it’s better still to be validated first by the press or a powerful endorser, so a nice place on the list can be won or a boost earned. If a short-lister has a chance at the nomination, he displays his groomed pedigree and self-vets his background or hires a firm to do it for him, so there will be no surprises when the president’s men look into his past. He selectively seeks an ally in the press who will convey his story to the public. But he must keep his campaign covert, as Kerry did, so that when the trial balloon of a non-nominated nominee piloted by folks like Susan Rice suffers premature puncture, he can avoid charges that he’s just another Sammy Glick.

Once the nomination is announced,  the press and the nominee’s opponents uncover the nominee’s paper trail and set fire to it. Does the nominee have a criminal record? A DUI on file? Tax liens? Messy divorces in his past? Is he a drunk or a masher? Seen a psychiatrist? Nanny or housekeeper problems? Ever since Newt Gingrich admitted to smoking pot and Barack Obama confessed to have done a little toot, many drugs are a non-issue, though heaven forbid if the nominee has shot heroin or sold pills to kids.

Is he an anti-Semite? Just the question is good for several news cycles. A corporate lackey? Can he be tarred with guilt by association or the appearance of conflict of interest? Is he too rich? Being too rich didn’t really work to Mitt Romney’s advantage, but it does present tactical problems as the financial reporting requirements for nominees have become massive and absurd. If the nominee is a Republican, he’ll want to seek a Sherpa-like Tom Korologos or Ken Duberstein to guide him through the “process.” Democrats can call somebody like Harold Ickes, Lanny Breuer or Lanny Davis.

If a nominee is lucky, his nomination will be made at the same time another prospective Cabinet member or Supreme Court justice goes to the Senate for their hearings. Obama has thoughtfully paired Hagel’s nomination with that of John O. Brennan, the president’s pick to head the CIA. This tandem nomination will dilute the press corps’s attention and force policy shops and politicians to decide which nomination is more import to them.

Nominees must steel themselves for the period before confirmation hearings when reporters write that “questions have been raised” and “questions continue to be raised” about “issues that won’t go away” and then conclude that the “nominee is looking more vulnerable.” Never mind that these bits of boilerplate are ways the press hides its role in promoting or demoting a nominee’s chances. Because there is more journalistic glory in bringing a nominee down than in helping one win appointment, the natural impulse of the average reporter is to pursue the dirt and “raise” the questions. But not all journalists swing with the same clout: If at all possible, the nominee must find an influential journalist at the Washington Post or New York Times sometimes even a columnist will do!  — to provide protective cover with stories alleging that “the issues aren’t expected to derail the nomination” and “sources on Capitol Hill say he’s a shoo-in” and “the White House remains confident.”

Confirmation hearings shift the dramatic focus from the nominee to the senators, making them the least newsworthy act in the pageant because few senators have the patience, the intellect or the stamina to ask a nominee a series of questions that will reveal anything newsworthy. Smart nominees rope-a-dope the senators’ questions with platitudinous generalities, strategically place their spouses and other supporters behind them within camera view and play nice. Dumb nominees — I’m looking at you, Robert Bork and Elizabeth Warren — make the confirmation hearing about themselves, and suffer accordingly.

Unless the Senate has somebody like Bork or Warren playing the role of combative nominee, reporters can relax and can, like their relatives on the sports page rely on clichés, sound bites and “analysis” in their coverage. “Is the nominee being Borked or not?” is a winning perennial, but should never be committed to print without the addendum that Judge Bork himself Borked  Harriet Miers a few days after she was nominated to the Supreme Court when he went on MSNBC to say the president’s choice was “a disaster on every level.”

Phrases to look out for: “harsh questioning”; “nominee unfazed”; “breaks along partisan lines”; “hot seat”; “a referendum on the president.”

The best way to survive a confirmation hearing is to have two or three simple points you can make that everybody will understand and nobody will object to. For Chief Justice John Roberts, he bamboozled the Senate Judiciary Committee with an avowal that his job would be to perform like an umpire, “to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat.”

The decision tree branches out predictably at this point, and so does the coverage. If confirmed, the appointee rarely makes much of a difference if he serves in the Cabinet. After all, you can’t do much damage or good in a few years. Can anybody here think of a Cabinet member staging a revolution in his department? The fact that Cabinet members accomplish so little makes a joke out of how much attention is paid to their nominations. Perhaps reporters obsess on presidential nominations because the story breaks here in Washington, where journalists are so numerous they haze the skies like swamp mosquitoes. Another reason is that the story line follows a simple formula, with a few acts and an epilogue. You could argue that nominations to the Supreme Court matter more, as justices hold their jobs for decades, but they don’t matter enough to deserve the sort of attention they receive.

Almost every hearing ends on a happy note, which should lend itself to positive coverage at the end. If the Senate rejects the nominee, a seat in the Senate can be the consolation prize, as with Elizabeth Warren. The rejected can convert their increased name recognition into a post-nomination career writing books, giving speeches, working as a talking head, or even taking a high-paying job. Bork turned his rejection into a brand and a nice living.

After a brief interlude, in which the press corps writes flattering “beat-sweeteners” about the new appointee to ensure access, all eyes return to the White House, where the president is about to announce another nomination and the process begins anew.

******

If nominated, I will not attend my confirmation hearing. Send nominations to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com and ignore my predictable Twitter feed. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feedfor new Shafer columns.

PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama (L) reaches out to shake hands with his nominee for new U.S. Secretary of Defense former Republican U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel (R) after announcing Hagel as his nominee at the White House in Washington January 7, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed

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Very funny, very true, very depressing. It makes one long, as contemplation of our political/journalistic culture so often does, to be lying on a beach in a country with bad internet connections and no English-language newspapers.

I’ve always wondered, apropos your mention of Chief Justice Roberts and his promise to just be an umpire, if that was a sly bit of truth-telling on his part which he knew his Senate interrogators would be too dull to notice: everyone who’s ever seen more than one professional baseball game knows that every umpire has his own strike zone, and that the zone described in the major-league rule book is pretty much taken as a mere suggestion. In his practice Roberts has followed the umps and used the Constitution as a set of suggestions more than a set of etched-in-stone rules, which perhaps should not have been a surprise.

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