The nomination of Neil Gorsuch presents the Senate with a constitutional dilemma: Is this nation prepared to have Eddie Haskell serving a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court?
The most noteworthy thing to emerge from Gorsuch’s testimony Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee wasn’t his judicial philosophy (conservative), his credentials (considerable) nor even the likelihood of confirmation (virtually certain). What stood out was his aw-shucks, good-golly manner: Gorsuch played a folksy sycophant straight out of the 1950s.
No fewer than eight times he punctuated his testimony with “Leave It to Beaver” exclamations of “goodness” – “goodness, no!” “oh, my goodness!” – and, though only 49 years old, spoke in archaic phrases: “since I was a tot,” “a fair and square deal,” “doesn’t give a whit.”
Gorsuch made groan-inducing attempts at humor (“they haven’t yet replaced judges with algorithms, though I think eBay’s trying”) and proffered self-deprecating demurrals: “I don’t want to waste your time. … I can’t claim I’m perfect, but I try awful hard. … I wouldn’t count myself an expert.”
Despite old memos showing him to be intensely involved in Republican politics and conservative policy, he said the closest he got to policy was when “I served on my kids’ school board.”
It’s a good bet that Gorsuch, once he has charmed the grown-ups and secured confirmation, will, like Haskell, reveal himself to be a rascal and cause all manner of mischief on the court with abortion and gun rights, money in politics and presidential power.
But now Gorsuch is pouring on the flattery. When Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) had an aide named Eric bring Gorsuch a copy of a document, the nominee acted as if the senator had offered to throw him a confirmation party: “That’d be great. Thank you. That’d be wonderful. I’m happy to. Thank you. Thank you, Eric.”
When Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) questioned him, Gorsuch remarked that the senator “would be a formidable companion in the courtroom.”
Leahy noted that Feinstein told him not to let Gorsuch’s flattery “go to your head, Pat.”
“Oh, he should!” Gorsuch insisted.
And when Leahy asked Gorsuch to “trust me” on a historical point, Gorsuch gushed: “I trust you, entirely.”
There seems to be little doubt that Gorsuch will be confirmed. Republicans may have stolen the seat, but that’s done now; the donnybrook comes if Trump gets to replace a liberal justice. A measure of the acceptance: empty seats in the audience during Gorsuch’s testimony Tuesday.
The most Democrats can hope for from Gorsuch is that he'll stand up to Trump when he exceeds his constitutional powers. Gorsuch, naturally, said all the right things Tuesday.
He assured Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) that Trump would have legal trouble if he were to attempt to ban Muslims from the military or reinstate waterboarding.
“So,” Graham said, “in case President Trump is watching, which he may very well be. … If you start waterboarding people, you may get impeached. Is that a fair summary?”
Gorsuch said “the impeachment power belongs to this body,” but added: “No man is above the law.”
Was he sincere about that? Hard to say.
Was he sincere in saying that he was a lowly “speechwriter” or “scribe” and not the brains behind a controversial memo he authored?
Was he sincere when he said “we were all surprised” to find his name on Trump’s shortlist?
His exaggerated eagerness, his hearty guffaws at the senators’ jokes and his constant solicitude (“I’m happy to answer another question, entirely up to you”) suggest that maybe – just maybe – he was saying what needed to be said.
People ordinarily don’t talk like this: “I have a loving wife, a beautiful home and children, a great job with wonderful colleagues. I’m a happy person.”
Or like this: “I put my ego aside when I put on that robe, and I open my mind and I open my heart and I listen.”
His was excruciatingly folksy, talking with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) about his daughters riding sheep (“mutton busting”) at the rodeo. Being called a “young Perry Mason” years ago was a “career highlight,” he said. And he recalled a recent visit to the Lincoln Memorial, which he boasted was made of marble from his home state. He quoted from one of its inscriptions, “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” which he said was from Lincoln’s second inaugural address.
One of the Democratic senators informed him that this was actually from the Gettysburg Address.
Gorsuch put his head in his hands. “Gosh,” he said.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.