Posted: Jan. 11, 2006
COURT IN MOUTH
By Celia Cohen
When the time came to question Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. about his Supreme Court nomination, U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. filibustered himself.
This does not constitute news in Delaware, where Biden has been talking since he became a Senate candidate 34 years ago and the voters would not be surprised to learn that his lungs were the model for King Kong's.
By the time the state's Democratic senior senator motored through his allotted 30 minutes of question time Tuesday, however, it was national news. The New York Times actually printed a front-page chart showing Biden outtalking Alito by nearly 4-1, and the Washington Post observed that Biden opened with a 12-minute soliloquy before he got to a question.
The New York Times had Biden at nearly 4,000 words during his half-hour, more than any other senator on the Judiciary Committee. He held Alito to roughly 1,000 words, less than any other committee member except Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican.
Biden himself joined in the caricature as he concluded his question period by quipping, "I want to note for maybe the first time in history, Biden's 40 seconds under his time."
This is the second month in a row that Biden's verbiage has become quantifiable. Roll Call, a newspaper that covers Capitol Hill, found he appeared more times on the Sunday news programs, like "Meet the Press" and "Face the Nation," than any other member of Congress last year.
Biden was not alone in his talk fest. Of the 15 senators, Democrats and Republicans, who questioned Alito, the New York Times found that only two let the judge talk more on Tuesday than they did -- Sen. Herbert H. Kohl, a Wisconsin Democrat, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat.
"All of this is great political theater, and both sides are guilty of making speeches instead of asking questions," said Timothy Jay Houseal, a lawyer for the state Republican Party and a leader of Delaware Lawyers for Judicial Fairness, a group of about 50 lawyers favoring Alito's confirmation.
As filibusters go, Biden was not exactly reading from cookbooks or telephone directories, but he did get himself tangled in a string of unusual topics when he could have been offering Alito enough rope to hang himself.
Dianne Feinstein's glasses came up as Biden was discussing discrimination and pretended to be an unscrupulous employer who did not want to hire her -- "I just don't like your glasses. I do not like the way you look" -- when the laughter made him realize how it sounded and he amended, "For the record, I'm a fan of the woman from California."
Then there was Princeton. "This is not part of a line of questioning I wanted to ask," Biden said as he dived into a digression about Alito's alma mater while he still was supposed to be focusing on discrimination.
"I mean, I really didn't like Princeton. I was an Irish Catholic kid who thought it had not changed like you concluded it had. I admit, one of my real dilemmas is I have two kids who went to Ivy League schools. I'm not sure my Grandfather Finnegan will ever forgive me for allowing that to happen. But all kidding aside, I wasn't a big Princeton fan."
Incidentally, the Republican Party's headquarters here gleefully seized on Biden's Princeton commentary by unearthing a 2004 speech he gave on campus in which he said he had encouraged his children to apply. Biden later clarified his remarks, explaining Wednesday during a new round of questioning that the Princeton of today was a diverse campus.
Biden put on a Princeton baseball cap to show there were no hard feelings.
"In fairness, he's running for president, and he's trying to show off a little. But it never works," said William Swain Lee, the retired judge who was the Republican candidate for governor. "He wants to be cute. That was once a strength of his, but he seems to have lost the knack."
Delaware Republicans have been lying in wait for Biden to run on and on. As one Republican knowledgeable about Alito's preparations for the hearing said, "Part of the book on Joe Biden is, you let him go on. If he pauses for a moment, don't answer. The odds are, if Biden pauses and you don't talk, he'll start talking again."
Biden's staff would prefer that the emphasis be on what Biden is talking about -- such as discrimination or what he regards as Alito's inclination to side with the state over individuals -- rather than how much he is talking.
"It's at least as important, if not more important, for people to listen to the substance of what Sen. Biden is saying, as opposed to counting the number of words. The questions that he's posed to Judge Alito have helped the American people better understand what kind of a Supreme Court justice they may get," said Norman Kurz, the senator's communications director.
At least Biden's staff can be short and to the point.