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.)