If Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominees are expected to open with Stirring Tales of Humble Upbringings, then we should be honest and move the venue to Oprah's couch.
Apparently the citizens who fear that Samuel Alito will repeal the eleventy-second Amendment you know, the one with the rights to privacy and prescription drugs from Canada are supposed to be mollified by a tale of hardscrabble determination.
Well, it won't work, and this biography-is-destiny approach is misguided. Let us imagine two fictional nominees whose "life stories" have informed their attitudes toward the Constitution, and see which one you'd prefer. Cue Straw Man No. 1:
"Thank you for letting me into the Senate today. Pardon my suit; back where I come from, they're all made of hay.
"I was born at the bottom of a coal mine to poor parents my mother died before I was conceived, and my father made a living carving balsa-wood peg legs for sailors. Didn't get much repeat business, as you can imagine. Every night he'd tell me and my 32 siblings that one day we were all going to go to college, and when we got there, we should gather up everything that looked valuable and run it back here to the house.
"But sometimes he'd take me aside and tell me I could go to college and stay there. I could improve myself. I could go to med school, and maybe learn how to sew an extra arm on my side. `It'd come in handy in a card game,' he said.
"I don't think he meant it as a joke. Jokes were for rich people. At most we could afford a limerick around Christmas. But I never forgot what he meant, and as I sit here today, the first man in my family with a college degree and a wife with teeth and an extra arm, I am reminded that America is a wonderful place where a man can be named to the highest court in the land on the strength of biographical anecdotes.
"So I pledge myself to judge the law according to my personal circumstances, and contort the Founders' wishes to help the groups who most closely mirror the economic circumstances of my formative years. Thank you."
It would be refreshing if a nominee told a different story:
"Gentlemen, and I use the terms in conformance with its most elastic definition, I submit to this appearance with equal amounts of rue and bemusement, particularly since it falls during the time I usually thrash my footman for sins both real and contemplated. It seems I must explain myself to a series of low-born mountebanks and trust-fund wastrels, in order to ingratiate myself with the herd of sheep over whom my rulings will fall. Very well.
"I was born in a manger, surrounded by farm animals, attended by wandering kings Mother had entered one of her rustic moods, and had the servants build a creche in the west ballroom. The kings were authentic, mostly second-tier low-country rabble, but one of them, a rather sweaty Belgian, told my mother I had the mark of greatness on me.
"He referred, of course, to this birthmark on my skull in the shape of the Masonic emblem; it is the reason I shave my head, of course.
"In any case, I attended expensive colleges, served as judge for two decades, translated the Federalist Papers into six languages. I will rule according to the words of the Constitution, and damn the consequences. Now if you don't mind, I am late for my weekly colonic irrigation with a solution of ambergris and champagne. So get on with it."
The first fellow would be the national darling. Senators would strew petals in his path; Newsweek would crown him "The People's Justice." If he later found that the Constitution contained an unlimited number of heretofore undiscovered rights, his name would adorn elementary schools across the land. The latter example would be regarded as Count Borkula, and find himself working a hand-cart to Obscurity Junction with Harriet Miers. Which would be better suited to uphold the Constitution?
Depends whether you pronounce "uphold" as "interpret." Or even "invent."