Monday, November 14, 2005



Organizers of the ABA conference I attended last week crowed with pride when they announced, shortly before the meeting date, that they had scored Senator Orrin Hatch as keynote speaker for the event.

I’d never seen Hatch in person before, and my impression of the Senator was formed by a series of TV appearances when he was not at his best: it was during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings during and after the Anita Hill revelations. Hatch was like a deer in the headlights – stunned, dazed and completely at a loss for the right words to say.

But I guess you don’t get elected five successive terms to the U.S. Senate without being able to work a room, and Hatch – with a law degree and 14 years of law practice behind him – spoke to the room full of lawyers with clarity and intelligence on various legal issues.

He cogently explained the Class Action Fairness Act; offered a surprising and insightful critique of BMW v. Gore, the wrong-headed Supreme Court decision that imposed constitutional due process limits on punitive damage awards, as an example of “judicial activism”; and came across as moderate (albeit Republican and conservative) on tort reform, referring frequently to the fact that he had worked on the plaintiff side (i.e., as a “trial lawyer”) for a few years of his law practice.

And yet, “statesmanlike” is not the word that captures my overall impression of the 71-year-old, five-term Senator. His strategy at charming us was to aim at plain-spoken folksiness, but he missed that target more often then he hit it, ultimately coming across as inappropriate and even a bit vulgar.

He referred to President George H.W. Bush as “Bush-one,” as when explaining that his (Hatch’s) son, “who was in the office of White House counsel under Bush-one, is now a plaintiff’s lawyer in Utah.”

In boasting about his bipartisanship, he tells a story about his willingness to confirm Ruth Bader Ginsburg to her first judicial appointment as appeals court judge on the D.C. Circuit. Ginsburg’s advance person, when scheduling the nominee’s sit-down with Hatch, said that Ginsburg (an extremely well-credentialed feminist lawyer and law professor) “is really scared of you.” Hatch says, “I didn’t understand why anyone would be scared of me” – aw, shucks! – “but Ginsburg did come across as really timid. Remember Ruth Buzzi on Saturday Night Live? Ginsburg was the spitting image of Ruth Buzzi.”

Ruth Buzzi is a comedic actress who played a mousy old lady in sketch comedy on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In, (about a decade before Saturday Night Live, by the way). Justice Ginsburg is not a physically imposing presence, but her main resemblance to the Ruth Buzzi character, other than perhaps the name "Ruth," is wearing her hair in a tight bun.

Hatch wrapped up his remarks by telling a strange joke about a Mormon church elder who was so earthy he couldn’t stop himself from cussing; he’s sent by the church elders to a sinful town, where he holds up a rolled piece of paper and says “this is the Lord’s shit list, and you’re all on it.” It’s plainly a joke that Hatch tells frequently to wrap up his addresses to interest-group audiences, but he really has to stretch to make it into the one-joke-for-all-occasions he seems to think it is. His tie-in – “don’t worry, you’re not on my shit list” – was pretty lame.

He obviously revels in his power, though, sharing these two "inside" stories of his facing down the other branches of government:
Clinton called me and ran down his list of about ten names for Supreme Court justice. His first choice was Bruce Babbitt. I said, “he’ll probably get confirmed, but there will be blood everywhere.” I suggested, “how about Steve Breyer.” Well, he picked Ginsburg for that slot, but he picked Breyer next.
I attended a meeting at the U.S. Supreme Court at which some of the justices said to me, “you have to get rid of diversity jurisdiction.” I stared the Chief Justice down, and said, “we’re not going to do that.”
I don’t have a per se objection to earthy language in a semi-dignified setting, if the speaker is a genuinely down-to-earth person. But that suit doesn’t fit well on Hatch. What he’s really doing is trying to seduce us with a rehearsed pretense of letting his hair down, as if we’re a group of his 150 closest friends, Washington insiders getting a nudge and a wink from a real power broker. It’s no doubt how he squeezes money out of Republican donors. But at the end of the day, I’d have been much more impressed by his sensibility, and his judgment, if he had acted in a more dignified manner. The phony intimacy he put on for us is not so far removed from the leering “boys club” mentality that – to his great surprise – blew up in his and his colleagues’ faces back in ‘91 during the Hill-Thomas episode.

BMW v. Gore? Actually, I can imagine how much better off we'd be if a 3'er were running the country -- or maybe even Chris Bangle.
Maybe Hatch confuse Ruth Buzzi with Gilda Radner?

As far as the "Bush-one" thing goes, I'm torn between the term sounding like "bushwah!" (an epithet used by a cartoon President Truman on an episode of Futurama) and Dr. Seuss' "Thing One" and "Thing Two". So now, I think that "w" will now be reffered to, in my mind as "Thing Two" -- and I wonder who will clean the country up when Mom and Dad pull into the driveway.
...this is the Lord’s shit list, and you’re all on it.

I wonder if he still has Metallica's phone number? That'd be a great metal lyric. He could get a partial ASCAP credit.
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