IN 21ST CENTURY Washington, fame doesn't last for 15 minutes anymore. It lasts for a single news cycle. There is the big press release. The next morning the major newspapers spell your name right. But by noon the Drudge Report runs a shotgun blast of half-truths and innuendoes, and by evening pundits are sifting through your entrails on CNN and Fox. Can citizen participation in government survive the advent of the Internet search engine?
Late last Thursday, Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, issued a list of witnesses to testify for the Democrats on Samuel A. Alito Jr.'s nomination to the Supreme Court. I was on that list -- a mere writer with a bachelor's degree -- among all the distinguished household names. But by the end of the day Friday, I wasn't on the list anymore.
I had been scheduled to testify as an expert on an organization called Concerned Alumni of Princeton. In 1985, on an application for a promotion in the Reagan Justice Department, Alito had touted his membership in CAP, which had opposed coeducation at Princeton and asked for strict quotas limiting the numbers of women and minorities at the university. Alito's membership in the group thus could shed light on his respect for civil rights.
So how to put what happened to me? I felt like Joey on "Friends" when he finally won a role on a soap opera. He could walk proudly, head held high among his more accomplished peers. But then his soap character fell down an elevator shaft -- written out of the show because a scriptwriter was annoyed at something Joey said in another context.
In my case, it was an L.A. Times Op-Ed article I wrote. In "Animals Suffer a Perpetual Holocaust" (April 21, 2003), I defended People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals for using a quote of my grandfather's. Unlike me, my grandfather was a famous man, Isaac Bashevis Singer, who had escaped anti-Semitism in Europe in 1935 and won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1978.
My grandfather, a principled vegetarian, famously wrote: "In relation to [animals], all people are Nazis. For [them], it is an eternal Treblinka." Three years ago, PETA built a campaign around that quote, but critics charged that the words were not really Isaac's, only those of one of his characters. My Op-Ed article affirmed that from my personal knowledge Isaac felt that way -- that the cattle-car reality of factory farming compared to the Holocaust. And I agreed with him.
In the era of the search engine, no good (or bad) deed goes unpunished. Then again, perhaps I should take pride in being ridiculed by a U.S. senator, John Cornyn (R-Texas). "It seems like a little bit of desperation to call a witness whose only apparent expertise is in comparing meat-eaters to those who stood by during the Holocaust," a Cornyn spokesman said. The Washington Times led with, "A free-lance reporter who compared the Holocaust to eating meat.... " A right-wing blog gloated, "Latest Dem charge: Alito's a carnivore." I haven't found an account from the right that mentioned Isaac or his quote.
As it turned out, hundreds of decent, honorable Holocaust victims and their families were deeply disturbed by the original essay, and I have apologized publicly for it -- an apology I reiterate here. Sometimes using an extreme example to make a point is a bad idea. Sometimes a quote really doesn't belong in a new context. Too bad my latest attackers don't get it.
Bill Bradley (Princeton, class of 1965), future Democratic senator, quit CAP in disgust within a year after it was founded in 1972. Bill Frist (class of '74), future Republican Senate majority leader, publicly censured the organization. But CAP survived to become more anti-woman and anti-minority. In 1984, a year before Alito proudly proclaimed his membership, CAP's magazine had published details of an underage female student's sex life and named her, allegedly by mistake. A few issues before that, in a piece about blacks and Latinos, the magazine editorialized: "People nowadays just don't seem to know their place."
In response to questions about CAP, Alito has proclaimed his fealty to American principles of equality. But when he had a chance to make a real statement, back when CAP was spreading its poison, he boasted of being a member.
That's the story that should have gotten its 15 minutes this week. But you won't hear about it from me.