Kagan’s Climb Is Marked By Confidence And Canniness - Biography
By Katharine Q. Seelye, Lisa W. Foderaro and Sheryl Gay Stolberg • New York Times
WASHINGTON — She was a creature of Manhattan’s liberal, intellectual Upper West Side — a smart, witty girl who was bold enough at 13 to challenge her family’s rabbi over her bat mitzvah, cocky (or perhaps prescient) enough at 17 to pose for her high school yearbook in a judge’s robe with a gavel and a quotation from Felix Frankfurter, the Supreme Court justice, underneath.
She was the razor-sharp newspaper editor and history major at Princeton who examined American socialism, and the Supreme Court clerk for a legal giant, Thurgood Marshall, who nicknamed her “Shorty.” She was the reformed teenage smoker who confessed to the occasional cigar as she fought Big Tobacco for the Clinton administration, and the literature lover who reread Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” every year.
She was the opera-loving, poker-playing, glass-ceiling-shattering first woman to be dean of Harvard Law School, where she reached out to conservatives (she once held a dinner to honor Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia) and healed bitter rifts on the faculty with gestures as simple as offering professors free lunch, just to get them talking.
Elena Kagan has been all of these things, charting a careful and, some might say, calculated path — never revealing too much of herself, never going too far out on a political limb — that has led her to the spot she occupies today: the first female solicitor general of the United States, who won confirmation with the support of some important Republicans, and now, at 50, President Obama’s nominee for the United States Supreme Court.
“Elena is open-minded, pragmatic and progressive,” said Walter Dellinger, a former acting solicitor general in the Clinton administration who is close to both Ms. Kagan and the White House. “Each of those qualities will appeal to some, and not to others.
“Her open-mindedness may disappoint some who want a sure liberal vote on almost every issue. Her pragmatism may disappoint those who believe that mechanical logic can decide all cases. And her progressive personal values will not endear her to the hard right. But that is exactly the combination the president was seeking.”
In some respects, Ms. Kagan’s traits — her desire to build consensus through persuasion, her people skills, her ability to listen to others — mirror those Mr. Obama sees in himself. They are qualities that the president hopes will play out in a leadership role on a deeply divided court. While Ms. Kagan has cited Justice Marshall as one she admires, some expect her to behave more like the center left Justice David Souter, who retired last year, or the master tactician John Paul Stevens, whom she would replace if confirmed.
“She was one of the most strategic people I’ve ever met, and that’s true across lots of aspects of her life,” said John Palfrey, a law professor who was hired at Harvard by Ms. Kagan. “She is very effective at playing her cards in every setting I’ve seen.”
Ms. Kagan’s paper trail is scant, her academic writings painstakingly nonideological. And unlike Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a fellow New Yorker and Princeton graduate, who has written and spoken extensively about her childhood, Ms. Kagan, the daughter of a lawyer and a schoolteacher, is more private. During her academic and public life, she has rarely spoken of her political beliefs.
When Mr. Dellinger interviewed her recently for a forum at Georgetown Law, he prodded her to talk about her growing up, and the influences that shaped her. She obliged, somewhat reluctantly, serving up only some bland details about her admiration for her parents.
Yet as a young writer for The Princetonian, the student newspaper at Princeton, Ms. Kagan offered clear insight into her worldview. She had spent the summer of 1980 working to elect a liberal Democrat, Liz Holtzman, to the Senate. On Election Night, she drowned her sorrow in vodka and tonic as Ronald Reagan took the White House and Ms. Holtzman lost to “an ultraconservative machine politician,” she wrote, named Alfonse D’Amato.
“Where I grew up — on Manhattan’s Upper West Side — nobody ever admitted to voting for Republicans,” Ms. Kagan wrote, in a kind of Democrat’s lament. She described the Manhattan of her childhood, where those who won office were “real Democrats — not the closet Republicans that one sees so often these days but men and women committed to liberal principles and motivated by the ideal of an affirmative and compassionate government.”
It was perhaps the last time Ms. Kagan wrote so openly of her own political beliefs. Last year, at her confirmation hearing to become solicitor general, senators focused less on her politics, but on whether she was too much in the ivory tower, with too little lawyerly experience to argue cases before the nation’s highest court. That question will almost certainly come up again, given that Ms. Kagan has never been a judge.
“One of the things I would hope to bring to the job is not just book learning, not just the study that I’ve made of constitutional and public law, but of a kind of wisdom and judgment, a kind of understanding of how to separate the truly important from the spurious,” Ms. Kagan said. “I like to think that one of the good things about me is that I know what I don’t know and that I figure out how to learn it when I need to learn it.”
At Hunter College High School in the 1970s, Ms. Kagan was a standout in a school of ultrabright girls. At least one classmate there, Natalie Bowden, remembers she had an ambitious goal: to become a Supreme Court justice.
“That was a goal from the very beginning,” Ms. Bowden said. “She did talk about it then.”
The school, which then occupied three floors of an office building at 46th Street and Lexington Avenue, was and remains one of New York’s elite public high schools. It drew girls from across the city and an array of backgrounds — all admitted on the strength of their performance on an entrance exam, rather than money or family connections.
“We were really exposed to tremendous diversity there — whether it was a Jewish girl from the Upper West Side or a cop’s kid from the Bronx or the daughter of a C.E.O. from the Upper East Side or kids whose parents worked in sweatshops in Chinatown,” said Ellen M. Purtell, a high school classmate of Ms. Kagan’s. “It was never about what you were wearing. It was: Did you bring your best game academically with you today and could you contribute to the discussion?”
The school, which went coed soon after Ms. Kagan left in 1977, was a rigorous, nurturing environment that instilled an ethos of public service.
“There was no driver’s ed, there was no home economics, you didn’t learn to type,” said Jennifer Raab, the president of Hunter College, who was a few years ahead of Ms. Kagan. “You were reading great books and you were going to college. You were going to lead, you were going to give back.”
Adam Liptak and Charlie Savage contributed reporting.