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Published: Thursday, 1/12/2006

Style over substance

WHEN the battle of egos and special interests was finally joined Tuesday in the hearing for Supreme Court nominee Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr., some Democrats and liberal groups were disappointed with the performance of Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Basically, they thought he wasn't being tough enough on the nominee.

That complaint is misguided. In leading off the questioning as chairman, Senator Specter was businesslike and covered a lot of important ground quickly. In presiding over the hearing Tuesday (and again yesterday), Mr. Specter was as sensible and fair as he was in the hearing for Judge John G. Roberts, Jr., now the chief justice, with the added bonus of appearing to be in better health.

Enough with the complaints. The straightforward approach of Mr. Specter is infinitely preferable to the posturing of some of the other members of the committee who want to play either the dogged prosecutor or the fawning advocate of the high court nominee.

Between the assorted windbags that encompass the cranky style of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D., Mass.), the faux folksiness of Sen. Joe Biden (D., Del.), and the sycophantic posturing of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah), the senior senator from Pennsylvania looks pretty good.

The New York Times, which in its news columns called Senator Specter's style the "crispest" of all in the initial round of questioning, captured the sense of this hot-air fest with a headline yesterday that read: "But Enough About You, Judge; Let's Hear What I Have to Say." The Times did have an editorial that faulted the fairness of the hearing and Mr. Specter's role, but from our vantage point we see everybody having their say.

So far the Democrats haven't laid a glove on Judge Alito. For his part, he has kept his temper even and his responses measured. As public spectacle, this isn't as enlightening as the Roberts hearing, but don't blame Senator Specter for that.

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