Is It Over Yet?

Any woman who has ever sat behind her husband at a confirmation hearing--and, full disclosure, I'm one of them--knows there is one cardinal rule: don't show your emotions. Especially if there are cameras rolling. Sit there calmly and well-coiffed while senators grill your spouse. Resist the temptation to roll your eyes or glare. Don't fidget. Wear something attractive, but not flashy. Smile when appropriate, but don't laugh. The goal is to be a supportive backdrop, but never the show. Martha-Ann Alito, wife of Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito, broke the rules Wednesday during confirmation hearings. She cried. After hours of questioning from Democrats about Judge Alito's integrity, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham apologized for the tone the hearings had taken and mocked his colleagues' implications of impropriety and even racism. "Are you a closet bigot?" he asked Judge Alito almost rhetorically. Alito answered that he was "not any kind of bigot." At that, Mrs. Alito began to sniffle and dab her eyes before leaving the camera's view and, reportedly, sobbing in another room for a few minutes. It was as if three days of holding in her emotions all flooded out. She emerged later with the requisite smile on her face. Mrs. Alito is no easily wilted wallflower. Unlike her husband, who is said to be as reserved in private as he is in public, she is outgoing. She's a lively southerner who worked as a librarian in the U.S. attorney's office when Alito was an assistant prosecutor in New Jersey. (Friends joke that it was no surprise that the scholarly Alito found his wife among books.) Even Washington's most hardened skeptics believe this week's tears were genuine, not scripted. Few wives could sit by stoically while their husband's decency is questioned. But the moment managed to give ammunition to the right, distract from Judge Alito's careful answers and raise further questions about whether these hearings are a useful process at all. Alito, obviously, has been carefully prepped. He has sidestepped questions about his onetime membership of Concerned Alumni of Princeton (CAP), a group characterized as opposed to the school's admission of women and minorities. He has been impassive, polite and sometimes elusive on hot button issues like executive authority, voting rights and the 2000 presidential case of Bush vs. Gore. His responses may have done little to win over the dubious Democrats or a skeptical public, but barring some egregious blunder they won't lose him any support among the Republican majority on the Senate Judiciary Committee. It was this predictability that made conservative groups seize on Mrs. Alito's tears as proof that the hearings have become little more than senatorial posturing. Wendy Long of the Judicial Confirmation Network took the opportunity to call the Democrats hypocrites. "It's bad enough that these sanctimonious liberals lecture everyone else about sensitivity to others, especially women," says Long, accusing the Dems of insensitivity to Alito's wife and family. Judge Alito's sister, Rosemary, patted Martha-Ann on the back as she cried. Others said the crying just showed the desperation of those opposing Alito. "They seemed sort of flailing in their attacks. It seemed very nasty and her reaction punctuated that," explains the Committee for Justice's Sean Rushton. TV news channels--bored with the repetitive questions that have characterized the hearings--are repeatedly flashing back to her breakdown. That and a testy exchange between Senators Edward Kennedy and Arlen Specter over subpoenaing documents about CAP got a lot of the ink too. They distracted from probably the only truly revelatory if subtle thing to come out of the hearings: that Judge Alito might actually revisit Roe v. Wade. In suggesting that, Alito went even further than now Chief Justice John Roberts, who has called the landmark and controversial abortion case "settled law." Alito, by contrast, agreed only that the case had set an important precedent. "It is a precedent that has now been on the books for several decades," he said. "It has been challenged. It has been reaffirmed. But it is an issue that is involved in litigation now at all levels." Judge Alito will almost surely get confirmed next week. Democrats' attempts to make Alito seem like a toady of government and the president didn't really work. Like all nominees these days, Alito refused to talk about how he might decide any potential case. Even Senators who like to hear themselves talk are getting tired of playing dodge ball. "The system's kind of broken," said Sen. Joseph Biden, who suggested on NBC that a vote that went straight to the Senate floor vote--without first going through the hearings--would be a better alternative. After a week of hearings, the American public has gotten only a glimpse into the humble, cautious judge. Even his wife thinks he can sometimes be a bit too guarded: It took him 13 months to ask her out on their first date.