Networks Paint ‘Trailblazer’ Kagan as Hilarious Wit Who ‘Can Take a Punch’

“For the first time, Americans got to see the woman President Obama called a ‘trailblazer’ in action,” ABC anchor Diane Sawyer trumpeted Tuesday night before Jonathan Karl framed his story on Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan’s hearing around how “a confirmation hearing isn't usually a laughing matter, but if we learned one thing about Elena Kagan today, it's that she has a sense of humor.” Like NBC, Karl featured Kagan joking about how she was probably at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas day.

The three broadcast network evening newscasts, as well as CNN and FNC, highlighted Senator Jeff Sessions pressing Kagan on her treatment of military recruiters. Karl used the exchange to praise Kagan: “We also learned that Elena Kagan can take a punch. As when Republican Jeff Sessions slammed her decision as Harvard Law dean to ban military recruiters from the school's career office....She made no apologies for taking a strong stand against the military's ‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell’ policy.”

CBS’s Jan Crawford declared Kagan “held her own, she was confident, showed flashes of wit, but she didn't break a lot of new ground,” while NBC’s Pete Williams touted how “she displayed flashes of humor.” (CNN expressed concern Kagan wasn’t liberal enough: “Some of her answers on hot-button issues may not please all of her fellow Democrats.” More below.)

NBC’s Peter Williams raised her liberal position on one issue: “She was pressed about gun rights in light of a 1987 memo she wrote as a clerk to Justice Thurgood Marshall. ‘I'm not sympathetic,’ she wrote about a Washington, D.C., man who said a law banning handguns violated his right to bear arms.”

On FNC’s Special Report, however, Carl Cameron pointed out the previous court nominee flipped on guns from the position she presented to the Senate committee:

CARL CAMERON: She urged a ban on assault weapons during the Clinton administration that many consider a threat to gun rights, but she was unequivocal about Monday's Supreme Court decision upholding the 2nd amendment right to bear arms.

KAGAN: That is binding precedent entitled to all the respect of binding precedent in any case, so that is settled law.

CAMERON: ...But President Obama's first Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, also said the 2nd amendment was an individual right in her confirmation hearings, then once on the court joined dissenting justices who said the right is not fundamental.

CNN's The Situation Room highlighted a controversy where in some notes Kagan seemed to equate the KKK and NRA, but the topic disappeared from CNN’s story reviewing the hearings. Setting up a panel discussion in the 5 PM EDT hour, fill-in anchor Suzanne Malveaux related:

One of the things that they talked about was this 1996 hand-written note that conservative commentators went after, saying that they believe that she was against [for] gun control because of some comparisons she made between the NRA and the KKK. Senator Jon Kyl called her out on this, and here's how she responded.

But at the top of the 6 PM EDT hour, Dana Bash checked in with a rundown of the hearing and didn’t mention the NRA/KKK matter as she concluded by conveying liberal fears that Kagan may not be liberal enough:

Some of her answers on hot-button issues may not please all of her fellow Democrats. For example, on gun rights she said that she considers recent cases before the Supreme Court, rulings upholding the 2nd amendment, a good precedent going forward.

From Monday night, “Kagan Hearings, Day 1: Evening Newscasts Downplay; NBC Offers Just 24 Seconds

The MRC’s Brad Wilmouth corrected the closed-captioning against the video to provide these transcripts from Tuesday night, June 29:

ABC’s World News:

DIANE SAWYER: And next, Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. Senators began questioning her today – the former Harvard Law School dean – and, for the first time, Americans got to see the woman President Obama called a "trailblazer" in action. What did we learn about her? Jon Karl was in the hearing room. Jon?

JONATHAN KARL: Diane, Kagan faced some tough questions. And while she may not have won over her critics, she certainly held her ground. A confirmation hearing isn't usually a laughing matter, but if we learned one thing about Elena Kagan today, it's that she has a sense of humor. This is what happened when Senator Lindsey Graham pressed her on where she was when the Christmas Day bomber was read his Miranda Rights.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): Christmas Day bomber, where were you at on Christmas Day?

ELENA KAGAN: You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.

(AUDIENCE LAUGHTER)

KARL: The humor was contagious.

SENATOR ORRIN HATCH (R-UT): We have to have a little back and forth every once in awhile or this place would be boring as hell, I'll tell you.

(AUDIENCE LAUGHTER)

KAGAN: And it gets the spotlight off me.

KARL: We also learned that Elena Kagan can take a punch. As when Republican Jeff Sessions slammed her decision as Harvard Law dean to ban military recruiters from the school's career office.

SENATOR JEFF SESSIONS (R-AL): I'm just a little taken aback by the tone of your remarks because it's unconnected to reality. I know what happened at Harvard. I know you were an outspoken leader against the military policy. I know you acted without legal authority to reverse Harvard's policy.

KAGAN: I respect, and, indeed, I revere the military. My father was a veteran.

KARL: She made no apologies for taking a strong stand against the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.

KAGAN: I have repeatedly said that I believe that the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy is unwise and unjust. I believed it then and I believe it now.

KARL: We also learned she favors televising Supreme Court proceedings.

KAGAN: I think it would be a great thing for the institution, and, more important, I think it would be a great thing for the American people.

KARL: But even that recommendation came with a joke.

KAGAN: It means I'd have to get my hair done more often.

KARL: As for Kagan's now-famous criticism of previous nominees for turning hearings into a vapid and hollow charade, she acknowledged that things looked a lot differently now that she is the nominee. So when it came to specific questions of the law, Diane, she kept things just as vapid and hollow as her predecessors.

SAWYER: All depends on where you sit – in her case, really sit. Thank you, Jon.
Following Karl, Terry Moran reviewed what happened at Harvard with the military recruiters, noting Kagan’s passion in place of legal reasoning: “...but she kept fighting, joining several other law professors in a case against the military which the Supreme Court rejected eight to zero.”

CBS Evening News:
ERICA HILL: Things got a little tougher today for Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. After mostly listening on day one of her confirmation hearing, today she answered sharp questions from Republican Senators. Jan Crawford is our chief legal correspondent. Jan, good evening.

JAN CRAWFORD: Good evening, Erica. You know, the first questions were also some of the toughest, and they focused on her efforts when she was dean at Harvard Law School to limit military recruiting there on campus because of the Pentagon's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Now, Kagan tried to explain that today, but Republicans weren't buying it.

ELENA KAGAN: The military at all times during my deanship had full and good access. Military recruiting did not go down. Indeed, in a couple of years – including the year that you're particularly referring to – it went up.

SENATOR JEFF SESSIONS (R-AL): I'm just a little taken aback by the tone of your remarks because it's unconnected to reality. I know what happened at Harvard. I know you were an outspoken leader against the military policy.

KAGAN: Later sessions questioned her intellectual honesty during that part of her testimony, and that wasn't the only issue Republicans hammered her on. They also focused on gun rights, coming off yesterday's Supreme Court decision that expanded gun rights nationwide. Now, Erica, Kagan said that she accepted that decision. She didn't say, though, that she would have voted for it. And that's that delicate dance these nominees try to do. So today she held her own, she was confident, showed flashes of wit, but she didn't break a lot of new ground.
NBC Nightly News:
BRIAN WILLIAMS: On Capitol Hill, there were two critical events. We'll begin with the first day of questions from the Senate for Elena Kagan, the woman nominated to succeed Justice John Paul Stevens on the U.S. Supreme Court. As our Justice correspondent Pete Williams reports, she faced a range of questions, beginning with her position on one hot-button military issue.

PETE WILLIAMS: Republicans accused Elena Kagan of treating the military unfairly when she was Harvard Law dean, enforcing an anti-discrimination policy that kept recruiters out of the school's placement center because of the ban on gays in the military. But she said recruiters were never barred from campus.

ELENA KAGAN: Military recruiting did not go down. Indeed, in a couple years – including the year that you're particularly referring to – it went up.

SENATOR JEFF SESSIONS (R-AL): I know you acted without legal authority to reverse Harvard's policy and deny those military equal access to campus until you were threatened by the United States government of loss of federal funds.

PETE WILLIAMS: She was pressed about gun rights in light of a 1987 memo she wrote as a clerk to Justice Thurgood Marshall. "I'm not sympathetic," she wrote about a Washington, D.C., man who said a law banning handguns violated his right to bear arms.

KAGAN: The state of the law was very different. No court – not the Supreme Court and no appellate court – had held that the Second Amendment protected an individual right.

PETE WILLIAMS: Her answers to some questions were, for Supreme Court hearings, unusually straightforward. Example, would she favor televising Supreme Court cases?

KAGAN: I think it would be a terrific thing to have cameras in the courtroom.

PETE WILLIAMS: And she displayed flashes of humor, especially in response to some unfocused questions.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): Christmas Day bomber, where were you at on Christmas Day?

KAGAN: I'm assuming that the question, you mean, is whether a person who was apprehended in the United States is-

GRAHAM: No, I just asked you where you were at on Christmas?

(AUDIENCE AND KAGAN LAUGH)

KAGAN: You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.

(AUDIENCE LAUGHTER)

PETE WILLIAMS: The questions continue tomorrow and possibly Thursday. Pete Williams, NBC News, Washington.
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center