Say what will about Donald Trump, his flair for showbiz can’t be derided.
Amid all the anger and chaos over Trump’s hot mess of an executive order restricting travel from Muslim countries, he answered many who doubt his presidential competence in at least one respect: The yellow-maned, thatched-roofed former reality television star demonstrated mad skills as a performer and producer Tuesday night with the prime-time rollout of his first Supreme Court nominee.
First of all, Trump has spent the past week and a half since his inauguration hyping the announcement of his mystery nominee with tweets and teases, plus a media-savvy cunning and mastery of suspense that might have put his fight-promoting pal Don King to shame. After he fired the acting attorney general, and the exploding travel ban controversy threatened to overwhelm his fledgling presidency, Trump effectively changed the subject by moving up his Supremes announcement from Thursday to Tuesday.
By the time the president introduced Colorado federal appeals Judge Neil Gorsuch and his wife, Louise, to a crowd of dignitaries and journalists in the White House East Room at 8:02 p.m. Eastern time, all four major broadcast networks had broken into their lucrative prime-time entertainment schedules to carry the spectacle, to say nothing of the cable news outlets.
And a spectacle it was—covered as such, respectfully and with a sense of majesty, by the media outlets Trump professes to despise, along with Fox News. It won’t be a shock if the cumulative viewership, at least for the initial minutes of the ceremony, equals or exceeds that of this Sunday’s Super Bowl.
The dramatic tension of the moment came from whether Trump would pick one of two finalists culled from a publicly released list of 20 candidates (a highly unusual, arguably unpresidential, ploy that served to boost curiosity). The endgame was a fight to the finish between Gorsuch and Pittsburgh appeals court Judge Thomas Hardiman. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that the promotional and performance skills developed during Trump’s 14 seasons of The Apprentice came in handy.
Gorsuch, 49, was cast as an elegant aristocrat of the conservative judiciary by virtue of his parentage, gold-plated education, and proclivity for luxury ski trips with well-heeled friends. His mother was Ann Gorsuch, Ronald Reagan’s director of the Environmental Protection Agency, and he burnished his academic credentials at Columbia, Harvard, and Oxford with a clerkship on the High Court with Justices Byron White and Anthony Kennedy.
Hardiman, 51, was the hardworking everyman of the competition—a scholarship kid at Notre Dame and Georgetown, the son of a taxi driver who had earned wages and tips driving a taxi himself to put himself through undergraduate and law schools. Indeed, while Gorsuch and his wife had been flown to Washington the previous day, Hardiman was ambushed Tuesday morning at a gas pump in Bedford, Pennsylvania, as he filled up his Lexus for what was, in the end, an inadequately rewarded four-hour drive to the nation’s capital—summoned by the White House to be an also-ran.
Video of the jacketless judge gassing up in the snow shows him throwing up his hand in a leave-me-alone gesture, his face a mask of irritation, as a CNN reporter tries to interview him and he retreats to the safety of his vehicle. Maybe, by this time, Hardiman already knew the score.
Jump cut to the East Room, a gold-curtained, high-ceilinged chamber dominated by two gigantic, glittery chandeliers. Around 10 minutes before 8 p.m. (according to the ubiquitous onscreen countdown clocks), the cable networks showed a tableaux of bigwigs and their opposite, members of the reviled Fourth Estate, all getting ready to plant their arses in the white-cushioned golden chairs.
The cameras caught Donald Jr. jawboning with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, and his brother Eric yakking with Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, both in the front row nearest the lectern with the presidential seal. The silver-haired vice president, Mike Pence, was spotted chatting with equally silver-haired Maureen Scalia, whose husband’s death last year created the Supreme Court vacancy that Trump was about to fill. With his shambling Groucho Marx gait, Rudy Giuliani made his way to his seat in the third row, positively beaming and shaking hands along the way. Lobbyist and former Christian political activist Ralph Reed sat in the front row, a chair away from Don Jr., who got up to greet communications aide Hope Hicks with a chaste kiss on the cheek.
At the appointed minute, the president appeared in the red-carpeted corridor leading to the East Room (what I like to think of as the Bin Laden Memorial Corridor, owing to the events of May 1, 2011) and glided to the lectern. The bust of Lincoln could be seen over his left shoulder; the American flag to his right. As Trump began his remarks to eager applause, he looked very much at home—the master of all he surveyed.
Typically, a president walks in with his nominee, but Trump was alone. All the better to announce his choice—to an ecstatic audience response.
“I would like the judge and his wonderful wife, Louise, to please step forward,” the president instructed, and suddenly the Gorsuchs emerged from the side and joined him behind the lectern. The president gave the judge a hearty handshake and planted a kiss on the judge’s wife.
“Wasn’t that a surprise?” Trump remarked in a self-satisfied tone. The president said nice things about the judge and his wife, and paid homage to Mrs. Scalia and her late spouse, Antonin, but because he is Trump, he also talked about himself.
“I am a man of my word,” he said. “I will do as I say—something that the American people have been asking for, for a very, very long time.”
The Gorsuchs are an attractive, athletic-looking couple. The judge is movie-star handsome, at least compared to his future colleagues on the court. As Trump spoke, Gorsuch bussed his wife on the temple and encircled her waist with his left arm when not affectionately rubbing her shoulder—the very image of marital bliss.
Judge Gorsuch’s remarks were a model of charm and humility. He warmly thanked his family, mentors, and friends, gave a shout-out to their two young daughters watching at home in Colorado, bowed to the power of the legislative branch, and promised to follow the law even when he disagreed with it (“A judge who likes every outcome he reaches is very likely a bad judge,” he said), and otherwise embarked on a charm offensive that he intends to deploy, senator by senator, to the skeptical Democratic caucus.
Gorsuch will, no doubt, face stiff opposition, but it will be especially difficult for Democrats from states that voted for Trump—especially senators who are up for reelection next year—to counter the warm-hearted scene witnessed on television by millions of voters.
As for poor Thomas Hardiman, perhaps he was already on his way back to Pittsburgh.