Elena Kagan is one of those people who talk rapidly, with thoughts popping out at you quick enough to make you believe your mind is operating a little bit slower than hers, which it probably is.
I knew her just a bit when I started covering the White House during the latter years of the Clinton administration. She was the deputy domestic policy aide, not even among Clinton’s most senior handful of advisers. My impression of her, beyond being intelligent, is that she was warm, funny, and not big on suffering fools.
While covering the White House, I also reported intensively on legislation sought by Clinton and steered by Sen. John McCain to generally stick it to the tobacco industry and, more specifically, let the FDA regulate cigarettes as a drug (nicotine) delivery device. She was the White House point person on the bill.
After the bill passed McCain’s Commerce Committee, I watched as she ran and embraced a Democratic staffer who had helped make it happen. But it failed on the Senate floor. A couple of people told me Kagan, with her strong personality and White House position, had steered it too far to the left, but I can’t say I know this first hand.
After she left the White House, I was surprised, considering her youth and relative inexperience, to hear she had landed a professorship in 2001 at Harvard. Tried calling her there once or twice, but no reply.
I didn’t even know she was an attorney. Actually, if you define an attorney as someone who practices law, she wasn’t much of one, since mostly what she’d done is teach. She’d become an assistant law professor at the University of Chicago in 1991 and was given a tenured professorship there in 1995, at the age of 35, just before starting her White House stint. Some at the school thought she hadn’t published enough papers to qualify.
Also teaching at Chicago Law School starting in 1991 was a an equally young lawyer – in fact the exact same age as Kagan – named Barack Obama.
I was then shocked when, in 2003, she was suddenly made dean of the law school, after Larry Summers succumbed to charges of sexism. I remembering wondering at the time what she had done to earn the position. Sounded like the kind of thing that you received after a long career of teaching, writing, and rescuing scoundrels from prison terms.
Seemed to me like she must really have a talent for being smart, being in the right place at the right time, and getting on the good side of the right people.
“Wow, that’s weird,” I thought. After she argued a few cases, it was suggested to Obama in 2009 that he actually put her ON the Supreme Court. He chose Sonia Sotomayor instead. It seemed Kagan either had to turn Hispanic or get a little more experience as a lawyer before she could be nominated.
There’s a story that before Jack Kennedy nominated Bobby to be attorney general – a position for which he knew his brother wasn’t qualified – he joked that he would say he wanted to give Bobby a little experience before he begins practicing law.
At least Jack had nepotism to explain his decision. Not sure what the explanation is for Kagan.
I guess Elena probably definitely won’t return my phone calls now.