The Literary Hill

Veteran journalist Carl Hulse examines the increasingly polarized process of selecting judges in “Confirmation Bias.” Photo: Eric Schaff

Packing the Courts
In a fast-paced opening worthy of a political thriller, veteran journalist Carl Hulse describes the reaction to the sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia at a Texas resort in 2016. Telephones buzzed all over the country as key players first expressed their shock – and then quickly began calculating the ramifications. It was, as you recall, an election year, and President Barack Obama had 11 months left in his second term. Would he be able to exercise his constitutional duty to appoint a new justice or would that fall to the next president?

In “Confirmation Bias: Inside Washington’s War Over the Supreme Court, from Scalia’s Death to Justice Kavanagh,” Hulse delivers a behind-the-scenes look at the political machinations, beginning with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s “act of outrageous audacity” in announcing that the Senate would refuse even to consider nominations until after the election. Thanks to McConnell’s actions, Donald Trump swept into office based in part on his promise to appoint conservative replacements to the bench. “You have to vote for me,” he declared. “You know why? Supreme Court judges. Supreme Court judges.”

Hulse then takes a step back and examines the modern history of obstruction, obfuscation and filibustering that led up to the 2016 impasse. Neither side of the aisle comes out clean. Even prior to 1987, when Democrats denied Robert Bork a seat on the bench, each side has blamed the other for causing the problem. Blatant hypocrisy runs deep. “With control of the Senate frequently shifting between the parties,” Hulse writes, “senators had to master the art of the 180-degree turn, instantly adopting the language and tactics of the opposition party as soon as they exchanged places.”

Hulse’s play-by-play of Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation hearings – and the bitter and contentious skirmish over Brett Kavanagh’s nomination – tell only part of the story. The Trump administration has also rushed to fill more than 100 vacancies that the Senate prevented Obama from filling, appointing judges who “flip the ideological balance.” With only a simple majority vote required, the Senate has no need of “compromise, consensus, or negotiation” and can “fill the courts without a single Democratic vote.” As Hulse points out, “The Republican position was that the Democrats would do the same to them if the situation were reversed.” He concedes that they’re almost certainly right. “History shows that the most recently wronged party steps it up a notch as soon as the occasion arises.” Or, as Senator Lindsey Graham observed, “The worst is yet to come.”

Offering fresh insights and based on first-person interviews with many of the key figures, “Confirmation Bias” stands as historical documentation of our judicial system’s increasing polarization. While the message may be disheartening, it’s an important one – and, in Hulse’s capable hands, it also makes for a terrific inside-Washington read.

A longtime resident of Capitol Hill, Carl Hulse is the chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times and a veteran of more than three decades of reporting in the capital. Find him on Twitter @hillhulse.

Putting Down the Pitchforks
The election of 2016 was a wake-up call – or, as Bradford R. Kane calls it in his new book, “a politiquake” – that changed the American political landscape. As one example, he points to the rancorous atmosphere at Donald Trump’s campaign rallies, which, he writes, “often had a feeling akin to … the scene in ‘Frankenstein’ when the town folk marched down the street with pitchforks and torches, ready to unleash their fears and anger at the source of their discontent.”

In “Pitchford Populism,” Bradford R. Kane examines the factors that got Trump elected and continue to shape life in America.

In “Pitchfork Populism: Ten Political Forces That Shaped an Election and Continue to Change America,” Kane examines a host of factors that played into Trump’s rise to power, from changing demographics to the global economy. For each, he presents a thoughtful analysis of how the particular concept, such as partisanship or accountability, factors into the current political climate. He then gives some historical perspective and offers constructive suggestions on how the abuses of the current administration, such as the blurring of truth and facts, might be remedied in the post-Trump era.

Loaded with documented examples of how America’s most cherished ideals and institutions have been eroded during Trump’s presidency, “Pitchfork Populism” provides a “framework to identify, categorize, and characterize the daily deluge of issues, actions, and utterances that collectively impose the Trump Effect on our politics, government, society, and culture.” But Kane nonetheless offers a ray of hope. As he notes, voters have been known to shift, as they did when they rejected the lies and accusations of McCarthyism in the 1950s. He has faith that Americans will eventually join together to reverse the “antagonism, dissension and fragmentation” that have been tearing us apart and once again strive toward achieving the American Dream – for everyone.

Brad Kane is a veteran political analyst who has served in the US Congress as a legislative counsel and as a member of President Clinton’s Task Force on Health Care Reform, and has been a featured contributor on The Huffington Post.

When Life Gets Crunchy
To say that Charles “Crunchy” Thomas is not enjoying the fifth grade would be an understatement. As a student at the fictional Elite Public Charter School in DC, his academic performance is in the basement and his disruptive behavior consistently lands him in trouble. When his class is asked to write a letter saying what they want for Christmas, all he can come up with is “I Hate Santa!!!” Clearly, this is one angry young man.

As author Glen Mourning writes in “Naughty or Nice for the Holidays,” the second book in his “Crunchy Life” series for kids, “sometimes life can get a little challenging, a little discouraging, and a little crunchy.” And Charles’s life is a case in point. His father is in prison and his grandfather, a Howard alum who provided his educational inspiration, has been killed by gunfire. With the burden of two other children to raise, Crunchy’s frustrated mother is reduced to hitting and shouting.

The second installment of Glen Mourning’s “Crunchy Life” series finds his fifth-grade protagonist acting out at school. Photo: Bruce Guthrie

Happily, salvation arrives in the form of Mr. Leroy, the former NFL player and teacher adept at engaging his students – except for Crunchy. It takes several doses of tough love before his would-be mentor’s message finally gets through to the resistant boy. Using the analogy of a burning building, Leroy tells Crunchy that it isn’t always our fault that we wind up in bad situation. But rather than stubbornly refusing to be rescued, we need to reach out and accept the help being offered us. “As long as you are alive,” Leroy assures him, “it is never too late to make it out of a tough and crunchy situation.”

Glen Mourning is the author of four books in the “Crunchy Life” series and has been a fourth-grade teacher in the DC Public Schools for nearly a decade.

On the Hill in March
Visit these websites to find listings of local readings, book clubs, discussions and signings:

Capitol Hill Books

East City Bookshop

The Folger Shakespeare Library

The Hill Center

Loyalty Bookstores

Solid State Books