By Lorraine Woellert The nation's Capitol has given rise to a unique cottage industry -- line-sitters who get paid to queue up for important congressional hearings where the space is limited but the issues are paramount. Lobbyists and political activists pay top dollar to these folks, who put up with hours of boredom and bad weather so their well-compensated VIP clients can get a seat.
Somewhat surprisingly, on Sept. 12, the line sitters were out of work despite weeks of frenzied buildup to the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee John Roberts Jr., who President Bush has tapped to be the next Chief Justice. It may mark only the 17th time in the nation's history that a new Chief Justice is up for confirmation. But due in large part to a staid Senate Judiciary Committee long on civility and toned-down rhetoric, the first day of the Roberts hearings lacked any made-for-prime-time verbal fireworks.
DEMOCRATIC FAUX PAS. Things undoubtedly will heat up in the coming days, when the committee's 18 members get a chance to pepper Roberts with questions -- and his supporters and detractors get their 15 minutes in the spotlight to sing his praises or trash his record. But on Day 1, few power players showed up, and the average citizens who queued up for the chance to watch 30 minutes' worth of the proceeding -- and were hoping for a showdown -- left disappointed.
It may qualify as history in the making, but Senate tradition and the structure of the hearings themselves -- opening day was reserved for statements, not questions -- contributed to the subdued atmosphere. Yet more than tradition may be at work.
Liberal critics of the fresh-faced Roberts, 50, and their conservative foes have been bombarding the airwaves and the press as they try to put their spin on a nominee who appears all but guaranteed to win confirmation to the high court. The full-frontal assault hasn't done much to sway Americans one way or another, but liberal groups intent on tripping up the nominee have instead suffered a few missteps of their own.
In August, NARAL Pro-Choice America was forced to withdraw a TV spot that depicted Roberts as siding with an abortion clinic bomber. Public-interest watchdog groups had labeled the planned ad false and misleading. Another brouhaha erupted last week after the liberal MoveOn.org told USA Today it would use images from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as part of a campaign questioning Roberts' sensitivity to civil rights. MoveOn.org backpedaled, saying it never intended to run any such ad.
"OPEN-MINDED COUNTRY" If the public miscues put the Left on the defensive, it showed in today's hearings. "Committee Democrats were much less acrimonious than I thought they would be, because a number of chits were used up by their Left-wing interest groups," says Leonard Leo, an informal adviser to the White House and a chief proponent of Roberts' confirmation. "The Left is in danger of overplaying its hand."
Of course, we may see plenty of fireworks before the saga ends. And the bombardment in the press and on the airwaves by pro- and anti-Roberts forces might be having an effect. Americans are relatively agnostic about the nominee. In a CBS News poll taken Aug. 29-31, 49% of those surveyed couldn't say one way or another whether he should be confirmed. That has both sides counting on the hearings to sway public opinion.
"It's an open-minded country right now," says Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way, which opposes Roberts. "The hearings always decide what happens to the nominee, and I believe we're in store for a very spirited and robust confirmation process."
HUMBLE AND MILD. Roberts, who reportedly has been preparing for this moment nearly all his life, is putting on his best poker face. After listening politely to lawmakers opine for more than three hours, he took his turn at the microphone for a few short minutes to reflect on his Hoosier childhood, the awesome power of the law -- and baseball.
"Judges are umpires," he said, speaking without notes. "I will remember it is my job to call balls and strikes, and not pitch or bat."
There certainly were no foul balls on the first day of his hearing. Stay tuned.
Woellert is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau