Schumer v Roberts


We are in for a lively confirmation process.

To be sure, there will be serious discussion of legal issues, somewhere. But the most entertaining aspect will remain mostly  unspoken. Because it is all about vanity.

New York's senior Senator, Charles Schumer, has a very high opinion of his own intelligence. You can see it in the upward turn of the corners of his mouth — a definite smirk — when he says something he regards as particularly brilliant. And, Senator Schumer is indeed a very smart cookie.

He entered Harvard at the age of 17, graduated, and immediately went on to Harvard Law School. For a boy from Brooklyn in the late 1960s and early 70s, this is quite an achievement. There is plenty of competition from that particular geographical area. It is something in which the Senator takes great pride, as a glance at his Senate website will show

But pride in being smart is a dangerous drug. Even if you think yourself quite the Harvard smarty—pants, someday you are going to run into somebody smarter than you are. If you are lucky and perceptive, you will realize this at a young age. If not, you might just become insufferable to that portion of humanity which can decipher your body language and facial expressions.

Schumer, who loves TV cameras almost as much as he loves being the smartest guy in the room, is about to clash with a guy who outdid him. John G. Roberts and Chuck Schumer both did the Harvard College and Harvard Law School thing. But Roberts graduated from Harvard summa cum laude, and from Harvard Law School magna cum laude.

These are not just funny words. They mean something. A lot, in fact.

I have had a hand in grading undergraduate senior theses at Harvard and awarding honors, and am well—aware of the criteria used in handing out the Latin signifiers. One mentor told me that professors should only give summas to people they regarded as smarter than themselves. (That's a very small group indeed.) Very, very few people among the highly accomplished undergraduates get summas. You must stand out as clearly a step ahead of the best and the brightest in intellectual firepower and achievement.

Senator Schumer has ample reason for pride in his ample mental agility. But now he must face someone younger and even more accomplished.

This time it's personal.

Thomas Lifson  7 20 05