Critics desperate to find flaws in John Roberts

Kathleen Parker

You have to figure John Roberts is a shoo-in for the Supreme Court when detractors resort to criticizing his attitude. When he was 17.

Imagine a 17-year-old with attitude. Can't have any of that nonsense on the U.S. Supreme Court. Additionally, critics have examined his often-humorous commentary written in the margins of reports and opinions during his more grown-up years while working in the Reagan White House and found them to be insensitive.

Of particular concern is his playful attitude toward the delicate sex. It has even been suggested that Roberts has been a bit of a smart aleck. All together now: full pout and arms akimbo.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that my own name occasionally appears in the same sentence with the words "smart aleck." Thus, I may not be the best judge of these things, but I find Roberts to be delightfully honest, refreshingly funny and pleasantly impervious to the mind-numbing dictates of our politically correct, be-nice culture of coercive caring.

Not to put too fine a point on it.

What I have a problem with are literal-minded members of the victim class who can't take a joke. Or who can't appreciate nuance except when it shines a favorable light their way.

So here's Roberts at age 17 writing in defense of single-sex schools while attending an all-boys, Catholic prep school. I'm a fan of single-sex education, by the way, as are many feminists as long as the school is all-girls. Feminists seem to understand that girls often perform better in an all-female environment without the pressures of boys, who tend to be more aggressive in class.

Ditto for boys, who often perform better away from the distractions of girls and from teachers' understandable, if nonetheless discriminatory, preference for girl behavior. That's an adult mother of boys speaking, not what you'd expect from a 17-year-old kid writing for his school paper. Here's what Roberts wrote in 1972:

"The presence of the opposite sex in the classroom will be confining rather than catholicizing. I would prefer to discuss Shakespeare's double entendre and the latus rectum of conic sections without a (b)londe giggling and blushing behind me."

Such blasphemy has caused a tiny tempest among some who see sinister applications in today's Supreme Court. Bruce Reed, writing last week for the online magazine Slate, managed to infer from Roberts' brief flirtation with adolescent journalism that whatever his views on Roe v. Wade today, "he would never have voted for it in the first place."

"Anyone who dismissed all women as giggling blondes in 1972 certainly wouldn't have found a right to privacy in the Constitution in 1973."

Perhaps Reed is joking and I'm being too literal. But then Reed's colleague at Slate, Dahlia Lithwick, praised Reed for picking up on Roberts' apparent "contempt for all things female."

As further evidence, she points to Roberts' now-familiar remark in a 1985 memo about whether a (female) government lawyer could be nominated for an award that recognizes women who change professions after age 30. Roberts approved the nomination, but added a comment:

"Some might question whether encouraging homemakers to become lawyers contributes to the common good, but I suppose that is for the judges to decide." Ba-da-boom!

It's a lawyer joke, of course, which ranks in popularity with "dumb blonde" jokes. As in, "Do we really need any more lawyers?" Not, "Is it really in the public interest to let women out of the kitchen?"

I don't know any lawyers who can't take a crack about the profession everyone loves to hate, except perhaps lawyers who aren't very good. The insecurity that leads to disproportionate outrage is often justified. Nor do I know any blondes who get their tresses in a tangle over dumb blonde jokes. As the platinum-haired Dolly Parton once quipped: "I'm not offended by dumb blonde jokes because I know that I'm not dumb. I also know that I'm not blonde."

Lithwick grudgingly acknowledges "the joke," but doesn't find the "humorless-feminist tack" a worthy defense of what to her is clearly a good-ol'-boy attitude toward gender equity. Lithwick concludes:

"The problem isn't with his desperate housewives (or hideous lawyers) crack, but with his relentless 'Gidget sucks' tone. Roberts honestly seemed to think that humor or disdain were the only appropriate ways to think about gender. It's not that feminists can't take a joke. It's that Roberts can't seem to take feminists seriously."

To which the sane, if smart-alecky, respond: Is it any wonder?

Kathleen Parker, an Orlando Sentinel columnist, welcomes comments via e-mail at kparker@kparker.com . Her column appears on Friday.