Mister Roberts

The theatrical Mister Roberts was a wartime naval officer who cared about the men on his ship more than he cared about his career. He also cared about getting into the thick of the fight. These two goals provided the dramatic conflict in the play written by Joshua Logan that premiered on Broadway in 1948. Robert’s captain was the one obstacle that stood in the way, since there was no way Roberts could get transferred to a destroyer without the captain’s signature on the transfer form. The captain wasn’t about to oblige because Roberts was a superb officer, and because of this the captain was willing to overlook Robert’s nasty habit of standing up for the interests of the crew and confronting the captain at every opportunity. The crew eventually held a contest to forge the captain’s signature, which got Roberts his transfer to a destroyer and which got him killed. The play enjoyed a limited revival this year in Washington at the Kennedy Center. I wonder if Judge Roberts went to see it?

This is a man, by press reports anyway, who has spent his life grooming himself, and being groomed, for the Supreme Court. He is one Senate vote away from being in the thick of the fight for the rest of his life. All he needs is to get by the Senate. Will he use a forgery to get by? Or will we see the real Judge Roberts?

What is the life story of this man? We see him paraded as we would see a candidate for public office, white shirt, red tie, wife and two kids in tow (one of whom misbehaves just a bit for the cameras). The perfect picture, the photo-op dream. The anti-Souter in every respect.

Is there a man beneath the image? What are his inner conflicts? What has he sacrificed, or refused to sacrifice, to his ambition, his career? What, in short, makes him human? His brains and sense of humor don’t count.

Can our Senators ask him this?

What will the Senators ask? Judicial philosophy—as if that will elicit any meaningful answer. Roberts has been carefully coached here. His opinions on the Constitution, living or frozen in 1789. Again the carefully worded answers to offend no one. How about a “right to privacy” or a “so-called right to privacy”? Watch the evasions here—this may come before the court and I really can’t comment… Or precedent, stare decisis? A good thing, generally. We know what the answers are going to be already. Bland, formulaic, inoffensive.

So let’s get down to it. What in this man’s personal life has given him a sleepless night? Or made him think and ponder and toss and turn? What ethical crises has he faced? What mistakes did he make? What are his regrets? What actions or decisions did he make that some might think were mistakes or wrong or unethical, but that he doesn’t think so? Has he ever stood up for something or someone that cost him? These are questions that cross the boundary into the private. But they get to a larger point, and that is whether this man can empathize with his fellow citizens. People who bring lawsuits that get to the Supreme Court disagree about something fundamental. But the lawsuit involves practical consequences to real people. Tearing down the wall between church and state forces religion on real unbelieving people. Affirmative action affects the future of real workers, black and white. Criminalizing birth control and abortion affects the lives of real women.

Can this judge put himself in their shoes? Has he been in their shoes? Don’t we have a right to know?

But of course asking Judge Roberts about these things would violate his personal right to privacy? I wonder if he will extend to us the same right under the Constitution.

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