Alito's 'Didn't Inhale' Moment

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I'm a few years younger than Judge Samuel Alito and a graduate of a different Ivy League school, but I remember vividly the intense heat around the issue of turning those male bastions into diverse co-ed institutions. After graduation, I worked briefly as a fundraiser for Yale in Chicago, and I would not infrequently encounter the cold distain and disapproval of alums who had opposed the admission of women. Why hadn't I been a proper young lady and chosen Vassar instead, they wanted to know. These crusty old Blues tended to be equally aghast by the rising admission of black and minority students under the affirmative action programs then taking hold throughout the Ivy League.

It's through the lens of these memories that I watched the Concerned Alumni of Princeton (CAP) matter unfold in the Alito confirmation hearings. Judge Alito was an undergraduate at Princeton at the very moment the school went co-ed. It seems that, like many men of his vintage, he opposed the admission of women and/or affirmative action for minorities. At least that's the implication of his joining CAP, a group formed to preserve the Princeton of yore as an elite academy for white males. Yet Alito, a man with a highly orderly mind, is oddly vague about his association with the group. He told his Senate inquisitors that he had searched his memory, and come up with no “specific recollection" of joining the group—a weasely phrase that reeks of not-inhaling prevarication. Alito told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he supposed his membership had something to do with supporting the return of ROTC to the Princeton campus, a minor item on the CAP agenda. And yet, Alito remembered his membership well enough in 1985 to boast about it when applying for a job in the Reagan Justice Department. Being part of CAP was one of his bona fides as an ideological conservative, bolstering his credentials as an opponent to affirmative action. In fact, once he'd won the job, Alito went on to work on cases intended to hold the line against affirmative action (such as Wygant v. Jackson Board of Education).

Alito now says that the anti-female and racist views of CAP are "antithetical" to his personal beliefs. Maybe so. But being part of CAP was consistent with his opposition to affirmative action and easy to remember back when it suited him. That Alito's name did not turn up in a search of CAP papers demanded by Ted Kennedy has been seen as vindication for the judge—a sign that Democrats were overreaching on this minor matter. The hearing's “biggest bang” on Wednesday, writes the Washington Post, thus ended in a whimper.

Most news analysts are saying that Alito is a shoo-in as a Justice. But I can't be the only one who is deeply troubled by his inexplicable memory lapse while under oath. Honest sworn testimony is the very foundation of our judicial system. Experiences involving strong emotion are the ones we remember best. No way that he forgot his position on dear old alma mater.