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Kagan's a not-so-leftist liberal

The daughter of a crusading New York street lawyer and protege of Justice Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court nominee has specialized in finding a middle position on the most contentious issues.

June 27, 2010|James Oliphant, Richard A. Serrano and David G. Savage | Reporting from Cambridge, Mass., New York and Washington

For Elena Kagan, it was a moment of sheer triumph.

Presiding over a gala dinner three years ago among the Italianate arches of the art museum at Harvard University, a beaming Kagan praised the honoree, Bruce Wasserstein, then the chairman of famed Wall Street bank Lazard Ltd.

Elena Kagan: A June 27 article in Section A about Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan said that Hunter College Elementary School in New York was a private school. It is a public school. —

Wasserstein's donations had helped Kagan break ground on a massive, state-of-the-art facility at the law school, where she was the dean. The construction cranes rising above Harvard Law's campus today serve as a testament to Kagan's prowess; she spearheaded a fundraising campaign that raked in almost half a billion dollars for the school.

By the time she left Cambridge last year to become solicitor general in the Obama administration, she had cemented a reputation as someone who could get things done at the highest levels of academia, business and government. At 50, she is firmly in the establishment, apparently as comfortable with conservatives such as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, whom she also feted at Harvard, as with her mentor, liberal Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Kagan had embraced a world far different than that of her father, Robert, a New York street lawyer whom she is said to have idolized. He often fielded 50 telephone calls a day from angry tenants, and spent evenings at community meetings advising them on how to keep their homes. Government officials and Wall Street barons were the enemy.

The Elena Kagan who will be on display at her Supreme Court confirmation hearings in Washington this week is anything but a community rabble-rouser. On her path toward this moment, she cast aside the black-and-white, good-versus-evil idealism of her father and her youth, instead pursuing a life of pragmatism, nuance and politics. She would leave the crusading to others.


From the mid-1960s to the mid-70s, Robert Kagan chaired a local community board on the Upper West Side. Throughout his career, he represented about 300 small tenants' groups fearful of losing their homes. He was not above legal theatrics, once tying himself to a tree to protest the bulldozing of a park.

"Bob Kagan had the human touch," his law partner William J. Lubic said in the eulogy at Robert Kagan's funeral.

Elena's mother, Gloria — like Robert, a child of Russian Jewish immigrants — taught at the private Hunter College Elementary School. Kagan would attend the school herself.

"It was really free and open," said Irv Steinfink, a former history teacher there. "This was a very liberal school."

For her class picture at Hunter, Kagan posed in a judge's robe, signaling to her classmates her dream of one day sitting on the bench. "She was a little gawky, thin, glasses," Steinfink said. "But she also was really highly motivated and she had the ability to motivate others. I once said she was an alpha student in an all-girl school."

Elena, her parents and her two brothers lived in a third-floor apartment on the Upper West Side. They rented, much like the tenants her father represented. The home had 10-foot ceilings and a small room for a house servant. But the Kagans, whom friends called unpretentious, converted the servant's quarters into a home office and placed their dining table in the grand entryway. Their apartment was more efficient than grandiose.

Her brothers became teachers like their mother. Elena followed her father into law.

"She was a liberal like her father back then, growing up. And pretty good liberals they were, too," recalled her uncle, Stanley Gittelman, a dentist in Philadelphia. "They were Jewish and lived in New York on the West Side. What else would they be?"

As an undergraduate at Princeton, Kagan mourned the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Writing in the student newspaper, she hoped that the conservative tide then sweeping the nation would result in a "new, revitalized perhaps more leftist left." She worked for liberal politicians, first Elizabeth Holtzman, who lost a New York Senate race to Alfonse D'Amato, and later Michael S. Dukakis in his 1988 presidential bid against George H.W. Bush.

But her choice of Harvard Law School over the more liberal Yale, her father's alma mater, was an early sign that the daughter would be different. Robert Kagan "was very disappointed" by the choice, Lubic said.


After graduation from law school in 1986, Kagan moved to Washington, and soon arranged to clerk for Justice Marshall. That summer, President Reagan promoted Justice William H. Rehnquist to be chief justice and named Scalia associate justice. They were determined to roll back the liberal rulings of the 1960s and '70s.

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