The last few weeks have been busy ones for fictionalized memoirs. Sam Alito’s performance before the Senate Judiciary Committee was a masterful display of myth-making that would have made James Frey and JT LeRoy, the newly crowned kings, or queens, of the fictionalized memoir, proud.
Why did Judge Alito feel the need to fictionalize his autobiography? His real autobiography seemed to be persuasive enough. He’s an intelligent, hard-working, family man who has risen through the ranks to the peak, almost, of his profession.
When someone fictionalizes his life, he is either selling something or trying to hide something. What was Judge Alito trying to sell? Himself. What was he trying to hide? I suspect the same answer—himself, and his real opinions about women and Roe v. Wade.
There was only one thing standing between him and the peak of his profession—his past, more specifically his dated opinions about women and Roe v. Wade. These unstated opinions were made manifest by his membership in the Concerned Alumni of Princeton (CAP). He couldn’t deny membership—after all he had bragged of his membership in a 1985 letter seeking employment with the Reagan Justice Department. It was a signal to curry favor, to get his resume to the top of the pile. It seems to have worked. Now membership in CAP threatened to be an obstacle to his long-sought goal to be a Supreme Court Justice.
CAP was an organization of alumni who were dissatisfied with Princeton’s accommodations to the realities of the late 20th century. CAP, among other things, sponsored the magazine Prospect, which in 1983 published an essay entitled “In Defense of Elitism.” Senator Kennedy quoted from the article at the hearings:
“People nowadays just don’t seem to know their place. Everywhere one turns, blacks and Hispanics are demanding jobs simply because they’re black and Hispanic. The physically handicapped are trying to gain equal representation in professional sports. And homosexuals are demanding the government vouchsafe them the right to bear children. And now here come women.”
To my recollection (I was Class of 1969), this was an accurate summary of the views coming out of CAP. They were a group of alumni seeking a return to the Princeton of their time, a white, male, straight Princeton without minorities, gays, and women only on weekends. CAP had other targets as well: the decline of the football team and the status of ROTC, but these were tangential issues.
Judge Alito had two choices: admit he joined CAP for misguided reasons which he had now repudiated, or alternatively, say he didn’t remember. Judge Alito went the latter route. Is this credible?
Every Princeton alumnus/a during the 1970’s and 1980’s was bombarded with news about CAP. It was the biggest issue that Princeton was facing—a concerted attack on co-education and minority admissions by a wealthy group of extreme conservatives, so extreme that Senator Frist, a Princeton alumnus and now the Republican majority leader, publicly rebuked them. We alumni received frequent letters from CAP, we read about CAP regularly in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, and the newspapers reported on it. In New Jersey, where Judge Alito was living and working, it was the only thing people talked about in relation to Princeton for years and yet Judge Alito said, “I have no specific recollection of that organization.” It must have been the issue of ROTC, said the judge, who was a member of ROTC at Princeton. Reportedly, ROTC was briefly banished from the campus while Judge Alito was there but returned after about a year’s hiatus. Hardly a reason in my view to join an organization dedicated to such a broad platform of opposition to minorities. There were other venues to seek the reinstatement of ROTC at Princeton.
Judge Alito’s testimony is simply not credible. But when looked at in context, it is understandable as an integral part of a fictionalized memoir.
Judge Alito had to denigrate CAP, knowing full well he would be cross-examined about it. He did it quite subtly in his opening statement by taking a deliberate swing, not at CAP, but at his alma mater:
“And after I graduated from high school, I went a full 12 miles down the road, but really to a different world when I entered Princeton University. A generation earlier, I think that somebody from my background probably would not have felt fully comfortable at a college like Princeton. But, by the time I graduated from high school, things had changed.
It was a time of turmoil at colleges and universities. And I saw some very smart people and very privileged people behaving irresponsibly. And I couldn’t help making a contrast between some of the worst of what I saw on the campus and the good sense and the decency of the people back in my own community.”
In the first exchange on the issue of CAP with Senator Leahy, after he talked about ROTC being the reason he must have joined CAP, Judge Alito said:
“Well, Senator, as you said, from what I now know about the group, it seemed to be dedicated to the idea of bringing back the Princeton that existed at a prior point in time. And as you said, somebody from my background would not have been comfortable in an institution like that, and that certainly was not any part of my thinking in whatever I did in relation to this group.”
So, what was Judge Alito up to here? Why the sucker punch at Princeton, referring to “very privileged people behaving irresponsibly?” Why the reference to someone of “my background” not being “comfortable in an institution like that?”
It’s all part of the fictional memoir, a la James Frey and JT LeRoy. Yes, Sam Alito came from an immigrant family, but his father was civil service and his mother a teacher, and they were solidly middle class. Sam Alito wasn’t mean streets, but he did hint at an impoverished upbringing that he had worked his way out of. He explained in an exchange with Senator Hatch that by “my background” he meant someone of Italian ancestry and “someone not from any sort of exalted economic status.” But young Sam Alito didn’t shine shoes at the Trenton train station to make ends meet or deliver groceries after school or work at McDonald’s—or he didn’t mention these in his opening statement or elsewhere, and I suspect, if he had worked after school, he would have highlighted it. So, Sam Alito’s family was well off enough so he didn’t have to work after school to make ends meet; rather he could stick to his books and study, study, study, with time off for baseball. The story was not exactly rags to riches, just middle class to modest riches—his financial disclosure now indicates a net worth of $2.1 million.
Sam Alito by his wealth alone, if not also his opinions, would seem to be on a par with those crusty members of CAP, an organization he had undeniably joined. How to disassociate himself in the public’s mind from who and what CAP was and the ugly things they stood for? Sam Alito had to set himself apart and make it clear he was not economically or otherwise privileged. So he opens with a swing at the white, male Princeton of Scott Fitzgerald and by implication those members of CAP that would make someone like him uncomfortable. Thus, he could not be tarred with the brush that the members of CAP so richly deserve. Sam Alito portrayed himself, in contrast, as a struggling outsider, fighting against the forces of privilege and repression, not someone who benefited from his family or birth. He is the underdog, a friend of the little guy. He would be the type of person that CAP would seek to keep out of Princeton, overlooking the fact that at that time about a third of the students were receiving scholarship aid. Sam Alito in his Senate testimony created an inspirational story, a fiction memoir, giving himself an up-from-the bootstraps authenticity which his middle class background didn’t give him. In this memoir he was not the guy closing the door behind him after he had made it to the Ivy League.
So, Judge Alito said repeatedly about CAP: “I have no specific recollection of that organization.” There is a Washington proverb—”it isn’t the crime, it’s the cover-up.” Judge Alito’s “I don’t remember” is simply not credible.
Why didn’t he own up to the truth? Probably because admitting to bigoted and racist views, even in one’s youth, or later, was too risky in a nomination where there was other live powder waiting to explode—his views on Roe v. Wade, for instance. These he carefully defused by stating that, even though he put in writing in 1985 that “the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion,” he will not prejudge the issue. One can only hope. An admission of a youthful mistake in judgment would have been one indicator that, like Justices Souter and Kennedy, Alito would be actually open to changing his mind once on the court.
One doesn’t see in Judge Alito’s memoir any evidence of mistakes, learning experiences, changes, or evolution. That is what we might have learned had he owned up to his real reasons why he and his fellow members joined CAP—it wasn’t ROTC or the declining fortunes of the Tiger football team—it was minorities and women getting their place at Princeton and getting a leg up through affirmative action to get it.
Thus, Sam Alito preserved the myth, by penning a fictional memoir, the up-from-the-bootstraps guy from the inner city of Trenton. From a literary point of view, Sam Alito’s life story still fails the high memoir bar recently set by James Frey and JT LeRoy—it is totally boring. It’s bad fiction. But, unlike Frey and LeRoy, it worked. He’s certain to be confirmed as the next justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, replacing a woman, Sandra Day O’Connor.