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Kagan: She Had Me at Scalia

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As a political junkie, and someone who still believes in Hope, I'm inclined to like Elena Kagan simply because of the president who appointed her.

When Kagan was dean at Harvard Law School, she hosted a celebratory dinner for Justice Antonin Scalia. If she didn't demonstrate deep affection for Justice Scalia at that dinner -- though some say she did -- she certainly showed deep respect for Scalia's knowledge and intellect. Even though they clearly differ in their approaches to the law, there is little doubt that Kagan believes Justice Scalia is someone who should be on the Court.

I couldn't agree more.

My brief interaction with Justice Scalia was nowhere near as highfalutin as a Harvard Law School dinner. I was in my senior year at The American University here in Washington when I had the chance to meet Justice Scalia -- and his sense of humor.

At AU I was head of the student-run speakers bureau, the Kennedy Political Union. Created after the assassination of Robert Kennedy, KPU has brought thousands of distinguished personalities to campus to inflect their knowledge, their experiences and their passions onto the AU student body.

But we weren't prepared for Justice Scalia.

I had typewritten (yes, typewritten) nine letters to the entire Supreme Court, requesting they deliver speeches at AU. Justice Scalia -- still relatively new to the bench, having just been appointed in 1986 -- was the only one to respond. He typed out a letter explaining that he would indeed be interested in speaking to our students. He even suggested some dates and, to say the least, I was ecstatic.

As with all our speaking events, I was required by the AU administration to supply the speaker with a standard contract, outlining what was required of both the university and the speaker. The boilerplate contract was used for all our speaking events, but also for bands and comedy acts that would regularly visit campus. So, in all my naïveté, I sent this contract to Justice Scalia.

"In all my years, I have never been more offended than I was by your 'contract!'" Scalia wrote back. I was mortified. He went on for two single-spaced typewritten pages, tearing the contract apart line by line. (My favorite: "When I speak, it is not 'show time.'")

I was convinced I'd blown it. Thankfully, Scalia ended his letter by refusing to sign the contract -- but confirming the date he would deliver his speech at AU. Whew.

The campus was abuzz with media attention on the day of Scalia's speech. Calls poured in all day. Reporters couldn't believe Justice Scalia was going to speak in public -- and they were all planning to attend. This is great, I thought. Justice Scalia will be so happy to know he's such a big draw.

Imbued with a naïve sense of passion that only college seniors seem to possess, I decided to call Scalia's chambers to deliver the good news. "Did you say the media are attending?" his incredulous clerk asked. "Of course," I said. "All our events are open to the public." "Justice Scalia does not speak to the press," the clerk replied. It wasn't a discussion -- it wasn't a request. It was just the way it was. "But all our events are open to the public," I tried to explain. "Well, then," replied the clerk, "You won't have an event."

Strike two for me. Of course, now Scalia's reticence with the media is legend. But in 1989, I simply had no idea.

Panic alarms sounded. The university's general counsel, president and all top administrators were keyed in to this pending disaster. Do we un-invite the media? Do we cancel the event? My solution: just let it ride. We couldn't un-invite the media without causing a bigger problem, so I suggested we see how it would go when Scalia arrived.

At 7:45 p.m., the room in the Ward Circle Building is buzzing. Media are everywhere. C-SPAN is broadcasting live and the klieg lights are blinding. I wait outside -- alone -- as a black limousine pulls up. Out pops a short, stout man -- Justice Scalia. His hair is slicked back and he doesn't seem happy. My intent is to cut straight to a personal reference -- he has nine children and I am the 10th in a family of 11. If we could connect on that, maybe I could somehow mitigate this media onslaught.

Scalia cuts me off right away. "Brian -- really sorry about that mix-up with the media. But I just don't speak in front of the media." "Well..." I hesitate. "Actually, they're here."

He stops cold in his tracks. His hands are straight down at his sides as he's about to admonish me. "We discussed this on the phone earlier today!" He stated emphatically. I was pretty uppity then -- which must be why I thought it was wise to argue with a Supreme Court justice. "Actually sir, you and I didn't discuss this. I talked with your office about it -- but you and I didn't speak."

He was mad. But he knew I was right. He hesitated a moment but didn't lose his angry demeanor. "I just don't speak to the media."

I somehow cajoled him to walk with me from the car to the Ward Circle Building. We got to the lobby, where several AU officials greeted us. Everyone was gracious and played their parts. Then Justice Scalia saw that the lecture hall was ablaze in lights and pulled me aside. "Are you kidding me?" he stammered, pointing to the lecture hall. "I can't even read my speech with all those lights on."

Thinking quickly on my feet for perhaps the first time during this ordeal, I said, "How about if I get them to shut off the lights. Will you speak then?" "Fine," he said. "But they won't turn them off."

So I asked the camera guys if they could turn down the lights and still get the shot. They could, and did. Then I introduced Justice Scalia to the audience.

Scalia was nothing short of awesome. He was comfortable, funny, smart, sassy and even at times cranky. He may not like it that our contract said his speech was "show time" -- but the man knows how to put on a show!

After his speech and a brief reception across campus, I found myself walking alone with Justice Scalia back to his limo. He was relaxed -- though I was still nervous. As we walked across the quad, I blurted out, "I just want you to know how sorry I am about that mix-up with the press. I just had no idea you didn't speak to them." He laughed -- and without putting his arm around me, seemed to envelop me like a father would his son. "It's OK. Don't beat yourself up about it. I just don't like speaking them." We laughed, and he warned me to be wary of the media as I ventured out into the world. "Well," I said, "since I'm apologizing, I also want to apologize for that contract I sent you last summer."

He stopped in his tracks and a huge grin lit up his face. "Wasn't that a great letter I sent?"

I couldn't believe it! Not only did he remember the contract -- but his scathing letter to me was a personal point of pride. He opened his folio and took out a copy of the letter. "I spent hours on this. Isn't it great?"

I was struck dumb. "You know I didn't eat or sleep for a week after getting this letter," I said.

"Oh, I bet you didn't!" he replied.

We were both laughing -- and the joke was on me. But I couldn't help but enjoy the moment. A Supreme Court justice had taken the time -- hours! -- to razz me. How cool is that?

Unfortunately, I haven't had the opportunity to meet or speak with Justice Scalia since that night. But he taught me a ton that evening. And the most important thing is that we need people like Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court.

So as the Senate weighs whether or not to vote for Elena Kagan, keep this in mind: on Scalia -- she got it right.

Brian F. Keane is the president of SmartPower (www.smartpower.org) and also serves as the president of the American University Alumni Association.