About a decade ago, one began to notice a profusion of Organization Kids at elite college campuses. These were bright students who had been formed by the meritocratic system placed in front of them. They had great grades, perfect teacher recommendations, broad extracurricular interests, admirable self-confidence and winning personalities.
If they had any flaw, it was that they often had a professional and strategic attitude toward life. They were not intellectual risk-takers. They regarded professors as bosses to be pleased rather than authorities to be challenged. As one admissions director told me at the time, they were prudential rather than poetic.
If you listen to people talk about Elena Kagan, it is striking how closely their descriptions hew to this personality type.
Kagan has many friends along the Acela corridor, thanks to her time at Hunter College High School, Princeton, Harvard and in Democratic administrations. So far, I haven't met anybody who is not an admirer. She is apparently smart, deft and friendly. She was a superb teacher. She has the ability to process many points of view and to mediate between different factions.
Yet she also is apparently prudential, deliberate and cautious. "She was one of the most strategic people I've ever met, and that's true across lots of aspects of her life," John Palfrey, a Harvard law professor, told The New York Times. "She is very effective at playing her cards in every setting I've seen."
Tom Goldstein, the publisher of the highly influential SCOTUSblog, has described Kagan as "extraordinarily — almost artistically — careful. I don't know anyone who has had a conversation with her in which she expressed a personal conviction on a question of constitutional law in the past decade."
Kagan has apparently wanted to be a judge or justice since adolescence (she posed in judicial robes for her high school yearbook).
There was a brief period, in her early 20s, when she expressed opinions on legal and political matters. But that seems to have ended pretty quickly.
She has become a legal scholar without the interest scholars normally have in the contest of ideas. She's shown relatively little interest in coming up with new theories or influencing public debate.
She has published five scholarly review articles, mostly on administrative law and the First Amendment. These articles were mostly on technical and procedural issues.
One scans her public speeches looking for a strong opinion, and one comes up empty.
In 2005, for example, she delivered a lecture on women and the legal profession. Kagan deftly summarized some of the research showing that while women do well in law school, they are not as likely to rise to senior positions at major firms. But she didn't exactly take a stand. "What I hope to do is start a conversation," she said.
Kagan's sole display of passion came during her defense of her decision to reinstate a policy that banned the military from using Harvard Law School's main career office for recruiting. But even here, she argues that her position was not the product of any broad opinions. She was upholding the anti-discrimination regulations of Harvard University.
What we have is a person whose career has dovetailed with the incentives presented by the confirmation system, a system that punishes creativity and rewards caginess.
There's about to be a backlash against the Ivy League lock on the court. I have to confess my first impression of Kagan is a lot like my first impression of many Organization Kids. She seems to be smart, impressive and honest — and in her willingness to suppress so much of her mind for the sake of her career, kind of disturbing.
THE NEW YORK TIMES