This Gawker post (“Why Is the White House Hiding Elena Kagan’s Family?“) is tongue-in-cheek, but the NYT City Blog post it refers to leaves you with a little discomfort about the Obama administration’s relationship with a free press.
The New York Times received permission on Tuesday from Hunter College High School in Manhattan, Elena Kagan’s alma mater, to observe a constitutional law class there taught by her brother Irving. We thought it would be intriguing to watch the give and take between Mr. Kagan, who is known as a passionate and interactive educator, and his students on his first day back after witnessing his sister’s nomination in Washington.
Mr. Kagan, who is also a Hunter alumnus, did not have a problem with the idea, a school spokeswoman said, but she added that all media requests now had to be given final approval by the White House.
Joshua Earnest, a White House spokesman, said that the administration was “uncomfortable with the idea at this time.” The White House called Hunter, and Ms. Halpern said later Tuesday it could not permit the class observation. A formal proposal has been submitted to the White House, which the administration requested. They asked that it outline the intent and goal of the article in significant detail.
(my emphasis added)
I’m no New York Times-level reporter, but barring an epic gaffe or previously unknown horrible secret about Kagan, it’s hard to imagine that particular reporting exercise resulting in anything more than a typical fluff piece with some cute law-related anecdotes from Kagan’s brother.
So big whoop if the White House doesn’t think it’s worth Kagan’s brother’s time, right?
First, any interview with someone close to Kagan would add more insight to someone who so far has been criticized for being “blank slate.” Kagan has been described as “extraordinarily-almost artistically-careful” about what she has said – for the entire past decade – leaving one court watcher to be at a loss to recall a single person “who has had a conversation with her in which she expressed a personal conviction on a question of constitutional law.” Her paper trail of written articles and essays, according to U. of Colorado professor Paul Campos, can be counted with two hands with a finger to spare.
But the most unsettling aspect of this is how the White House, if the NYT’s account is to be believed, actively hindering reporters. It may very well be that the Irving Kagan has nothing worthwhile to add to what (little) is already known about his sister, but that’s a judgment The Government should not be making for the free press.
Nearly exactly two years ago, a devastating earthquake killed nearly 70,000 in the Sichuan province, including thousands of schoolchildren. The Chinese government blocked reporters from talking to grieving parents. And conceivably, they could’ve phrased their case this way: “A horrible earthquake has killed these parents’ children, and all you care about is pestering them with questions to sell newspapers? What are they going to say but the obvious, anyway? Of course they’re suffering, now leave them alone.”
Fortunately, for the longer-term benefit of the country, the parents did get to be heard. And they didn’t just talk about how tragic the earthquake was, they cursed the corrupt officials who allowed the shoddy construction of the schools that collapsed and killed their children. That was also a story that the Chinese government didn’t think needed to be told.
This isn’t China, and the lives of thousands of schoolchildren doesn’t (hopefully) depend on hearing from Elena Kagan’s relatives. But that’s the point: if Kagan can’t even open up about trivial things, then we can only trust the authorities who picked her that she’s the right person to have a nearly unilateral profound impact American law for the next two to three decades.
There is another avenue of insight to Kagan; she could speak frankly and thoroughly during her Senate confirmation. After all, she did say “it is an embarrassment that Senators do not insist that any nominee reveal what kind of Justice she would make, by disclosing her views on important legal issues.”
But that road seems unlikely to be traveled:
Kagan wrote in 1995 that the confirmation process had become a “charade” because nominees were not answering direct questions, and said they should have to do so.
But during a briefing with reporters in the White House, Ron Klain, a top legal adviser to Vice President Joe Biden who played a key role in helping President Obama choose Kagan, said that she no longer holds this opinion…
“She was asked about it and said that both the passage of time and her perspective as a nominee had given her a new appreciation and respect for the difficulty of being a nominee, and the need to answer questions carefully,” Klain said, prompting laughter from a few reporters.
This is all the more sad when you consider that Kagan is being nominated by a President who, very admirably in my opinion, let embarrassing facets of his life be reported, including his cocaine use. Fuck, he may even be the first President to willing record himself saying (in the context of quoting a friend) “Sorry ass motherfucker.”
And now reporters won’t even be get to hear Kagan’s cousin (re-)reminisce about Elena’s rough-scrabble Upper West Side childhood, growing up in a family that “just really enjoyed debating and discussing everything.”
For reference sake, I did a quick search through Factiva’s archive to see what was said about Harriet Miers, the Bush Supreme Court nominee who was laughed off the stage, and to whose lack of judicial record Kagan’s is now being derisively compared. I didn’t find much from Miers’ family, but I didn’t see anything in the quick search that indicated the Bush administration was hamfistedly blocking access to Miers’ family (not that existence of such would justify the current White House’s actions).
Here’s one blurb that focused on Miers’ brother:
Miers’ brother says he’s learning more about his private sister
By SHEILA FLYNN
Associated Press Writer
DALLAS (AP) – Harriet Miers is such a private person that three days after her nomination to the Supreme Court, even her brother says he is learning things about his younger sister.
Robert Miers, 62, said Wednesday that he’s prodded his sister to tell him about her work with President Bush, but the most she will ever say that she chopped wood with him at the Crawford ranch or jogged with him in Washington.
“She says everything is confidential,” said Miers, who answered the door at his sister’s 4,000-square-foot home in an upper-middle class neighborhood just north of downtown Dallas.
The four-bedroom, three-bathroom brick home and nearly one-acre plot, which includes a tennis court, appraised for $687,860 this year, according to property records. The house, built in 1963, is now on the market.
Robert Miers said his sister bought the house nearly 20 years ago largely for their mother, Sally. Their father, Harris, suffered a stroke while Harriet Miers was in college and died in 1973.
He said their 91-year-old mother has brittle bones and dementia, and when her health took a turn for the worse this summer, she was placed in a nursing home.
Harriet Miers, 60, really hasn’t lived at the home since she went to Washington in 2000, he said. His sister visits Dallas frequently, and the siblings had helped care for their mother along with nurses.
He said his sister’s kind, quiet nature reminds him and his brothers — Dr. Jeb Stuart Miers of Dallas and Harris Miers Jr., of Houston — of their mother.
“There’s a lot of people, including my brothers, that are not as surprised as you might think about the nomination because of the quality of her nature, the beauty of her spirit,” he said.
The family knew Harriet would do important things in her life, but “we never thought it would be the Supreme Court,” he said.
Miers described his sister as a private person, and with all the media scrutiny into her background, even he is learning details he didn’t know, such as closely she advises the president.
But, he believes she has nothing to hide.
“Everything is public record,” he said.
Well, Kagan is no Harriet Miers, in at least one small way.