Serenity of Harvard Club Unruffled by Court Hearing
Published: June 28, 2010
Elena Kagan, the Supreme Court nominee, is a graduate of Harvard Law School as well as a former dean there. What better place to watch her confirmation hearing, which began on Monday, than in a clubhouse with her former students and fellow alumni?
But getting the scoop inside the prestigious Harvard Club on West 44th Street in Manhattan, a seemingly natural habitat for Kagan supporters, was not as simple an affair as it might sound.
No “working members of the press” are allowed inside the club as per No. XII of its house rules. Note that this rule is ranked higher than a ban on pets (Rule XVII). They were not going to make this easy. Hanging around in the corner of a darkened-wood bar with a pen and paper qualifies as “working” under those bylaws, and so a reporter had to make do on the hot sidewalk, picking up scraps of information from the after-lunch crowd leaving the club.
Here comes one now. What was for lunch?
“My usual, Cobb salad, up in the balcony,” an alumnus said, declining to identify himself beyond the basics: a 55-year-old real estate broker. Was anyone discussing the confirmation of Ms. Kagan? “No one’s paying attention.” Oh, and one more thing: “Former Governor Bush is inside,” he said. Which one? “Jeb Bush.”
No sign of Mr. Bush, but here comes Walter Bottger, 71, a very pleasant divorce lawyer who patiently answered several questions on a sticky day and on the sunny side of the street. He stepped out of the club for a moment before a workout in its gym. He usually has soup and a sandwich in the casual balcony. “It’s perfectly good,” he said. “The food’s reasonably pleasant.”
Ms. Kagan’s hearings seemed to lack the drama of those of some past nominees. “Everybody assumes she’s going to get it,” Mr. Bottger said. In the gym, he saw that most of the little television screens on the treadmills and stationary bicycles were showing the former dean. “The only thing on was Elena Kagan,” he said. “But there weren’t many people there. Three or four people.”
The club was founded in 1865 by five alumni, according to its history. The first annual dinner was held the following year, at Delmonico’s, and 20 years after that, the first permanent clubhouse was rented at 11 West 22nd Street.
The club’s incorporation papers, dated 1887, said its object was to “promote social intercourse” for its members and their guests. It was designed to include “a club house, having a library, a reading room, a gallery of art, and such other appurtenances and belongings as are usual in clubs and club houses.”
There is something at the Harvard Club that is not a given in every club. “I like it because I can bring women,” Mr. Bottger said. “Clients or my wife.”
Ms. Kagan herself has been to the club, and spoke there at a breakfast some years back, said Jim Hayden, 55, a lawyer who attended the talk. “She was very personable, and seemed enthusiastic about her job as dean,” he said. Young lawyers at Mr. Hayden’s firm speak well of her.
Where to watch the hearing? Upon entering the main entrance to the club, members pass a concierge in the lobby. Straight ahead is the Grill Room, and beyond that, the Main Dining Room, with the balcony upstairs.
“There’s a television set over the bar in the bar room,” said Anthony Paddock, 74, a graduate of Harvard College in 1957 and, three years later, Harvard Law. He had gazpacho and cold poached salmon for lunch, but did not notice if any televisions in the bar were showing the hearing.
“I think people are more likely to watch the World Cup,” said Richard Norton, 57, a writer. “It’s really sleepy in the summer.”
Had they put on the hearing, the Harvard Club members would have heard several opening statements from senators before Ms. Kagan began her own statement, with about half an hour left in the Brazil-Chile match.
Before attending Harvard Law, Ms. Kagan graduated from Princeton University. To be fair, the Princeton Club and many other private clubs also do not allow working reporters.
Mr. Bottger suggested the rules were easily broken.
“If you wore a coat and tie,” he said, “nobody would know.”