Sheryl Gay Stolberg's Friday "Political Memo," "Say It With Feeling? Not This Time Around ," ostensibly dealt with the White House's downplaying its use of the word "empathy" to describe the president's judicial philosophy.
Empathy was all the rage in Washington only a few weeks ago, when Justice David H. Souter announced his retirement and Mr. Obama, in an appearance in the White House briefing room, declared "that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people's hopes and struggles, as an essential ingredient" for a replacement.
It was hardly a throwaway line. Empathy is central to Mr. Obama's world view, to his concept of how government should treat citizens and how citizens should treat one another. "It is at the heart of my moral code," he wrote in his book "The Audacity of Hope," "and it is how I understand the Golden Rule - not simply as a call to sympathy or charity, but as something more demanding, a call to stand in somebody else's shoes and see through their eyes."
But now that conservatives have cast empathy as an epithet when it comes to the judiciary - "a code word for an activist judge," as Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, said on ABC - Mr. Obama seems to have dropped it from his confirmation lexicon.
But Stolberg also mounted a defense of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, neutralizing the conservative attack by relaying an example from 1991,of George H.W. Bush praising his nominee Clarence Thomas as a person "who has great empathy." (A Nexis search indicates the Times never actually quoted Bush Sr. saying that about Thomas in a news story, but it's a handy quote now to use in defense of Sotomayor.)
As if her 5,000-word Wednesday front-pagefawn-a-thon wasn't enough, Stolberg used Friday's memo to again detail Sotomayor's "powerful personal story." The hardship angle was not emphasized by the Times when the conservative Thomas was nominated, even though his personal story of being raised in poverty by his grandparents in Pin Point, Ga. was certainly stirring.
Yet feelings are, in part, what Judge Sotomayor's candidacy is all about. The White House is betting that only the most hardened senator would not be moved by her powerful personal story - a daughter of Puerto Rican parents, who discovered at 8 she had diabetes, who lost her father at 9, who grew up in the housing projects of the Bronx and went on toPrinceton University, Yale Law and ultimately a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.