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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Does Alito Pretend To Be A Moderate?

We examine a MoveOn.org ad saying he 'plays one on TV,' and implying he gives misleading answers to 'problem' questions.


An ad by the liberal group MoveOn.org Political Action says Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito “is no moderate, but he plays one on TV.” The ad implies that Alito is giving misleading answers to questions about “problem areas” in his past.

Whether Alito claims to be a “moderate” or not is open to question: there’s little doubt he’s solidly conservative. The ad correctly summarizes Alito’s reported responses, though opinions will differ about how forthright  those have been. The ad airs as Alito begins several days of public questioning on these and other matters at his Senate confirmation hearings. We supply background.


The liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org Political Action released a 30-second ad Jan. 9 alleging that Samuel Alito is posing as a moderate, and implying that he is giving misleading answers to questions about his record. The ad, “Plays One on TV,” is supported by a $150,000 media buy to appear nationally on CNN and locally in Rhode Island and Ohio. Both states have Republican Senators up for re-election in next year in what are assumed to be tight races. The ad features an actor whose face is never shown, sitting in a director’s chair with the name “Alito” emblazoned on the back.  He is being coached by a female aide while being made up for a TV appearance.

MoveOn.org Political Action TV Ad:
“Plays One on TV”

(On Screen: Backstage dressing room. A man is sitting in a director’s chair getting made up, having his hair combed. Though his face is not shown, the back of his chair says, “Alito.” A female aide enters and speaks to him as the make-up artist continues doing his make-up.)

Woman Aide: Looking good. Now let’s just tackle a few problem areas: Yes, you wrote on a job application that a woman has no constitutional right to an abortion. But your excuse is brilliant: You only did it to get the job.

You broke your promise not to rule on cases involving that company you invested with. Stick to your answer: computer glitch. Oh, and the group you belonged to that wanted to restrict African American admissions to your college. You’ve been saying, “I don’t recall.” Love it.

(On Screen: Samuel Alito.  He’s no moderate)

Announcer: Samuel Alito is no moderate, but he plays one on TV.

Right to Abortion

The female aide first notes that, “yes you wrote on a job application that a woman has no Constitutional right to an abortion. But your excuse is brilliant: You only did it to get the job.”

Alito did indeed write that a woman does not have a Constitutional right to an abortion. This was in a 1985 application for a promotion in the Reagan administration’s Department of Justice. Alito wrote, referring to his earlier work:

Alito: I am particularly proud of my contributions in recent cases in which the government has argued in the Supreme Court that racial and ethnic quotas should not be allowed and that the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion.

It is also true that Alito has been quoted as saying he wrote this trying to get a political job. For example, Sen. Diane Feinstein of California said that Alito told her that he was “an advocate seeking a job” and that it was a “political job.” But she also said Alito told her that as a judge he doesn’t make rulings based on his personal views. She spoke to reporters immediately after meeting with Alito Nov. 15, 2005:

Sen. Feinstein: And what he (Alito) told me was this. He said, First of all, it was different then. He said, I was an advocate seeking a job. It was a political job. And that was 1985.

I’m now a judge, you know. I’ve been on the circuit court for 15 years. And it’s very different. I’m not an advocate. I don’t give heed to my personal views. What I do is interpret the law.

And I believe he was very sincere in what he said.

It is customary for Supreme Court nominees to refrain from speaking publicly prior to confirmation hearings, which began Jan. 9.

Computer Glitch

The female aide in the ad follows by telling the actor playing Alito, “you broke your promise not to rule on cases involving that company you invested with. Stick with your answer: ‘Computer glitch.'”

It is true that a computer problem is one of the explanations offered for Alito’s failure to disqualify himself from a 2002 case involving the Vanguard mutual fund company, despite a promise he made to the Senate not to hear such cases. Alito owns several hundred thousand dollars worth of Vanguard mutual funds. Alito has also said, in a letter released by Chairman Arlen Specter of the Senate Judiciary Committee, that his ownership of Vanguard funds posed no actual financial conflict. Alito also said his original pledge to the Senate was too cautious, saying he believes he was “unduly restrictive.”

Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts criticized all of Alito’s explanations in a letter he released Dec. 5. The Vanguard matter is likely to receive further attention during confirmation hearings. For more on the Vanguard matter see our Jan. 5 article.

“CAP”ing it Off

The final assertion in the ad concerns a controversial, conservative Princeton alumni group to which Alito once claimed membership. The female coach in the ad says, “the group you belonged to that wanted to restrict African American admissions to your college. You’ve been saying, ‘I don’t recall.’ Love it.”

It is true that Alito now says he has no recollection of being a member or attending meetings of the Concerned Alumni of Princeton, and it is also true that CAP’s newsletter editorialized 30 years ago against changes in admissions policies at the previously all-male university. CAP was founded in 1972, when Alito was a Princeton undergraduate. It is now defunct.

Alito claimed membership in 1985, in his Reagan-era job application, saying he was “a member of the Concerned Alumni of Princeton University, a conservative alumni group.” He listed his membership as evidence of his “philosophical commitment” to the Reagan administration. But he listed no such membership a few years later, on a 1990 Senate questionnaire he filled out before his confirmation to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, when he faced scrutiny by both Democrats and Republicans.

CAP was founded in response to the admission of women to Princeton University, which had begun three years earlier in 1969. The Daily Princetonian has reported that “Interviews with several alumni who were students in the 1970s paint a picture of Concerned Alumni of Princeton (CAP) as a far-right organization funded by conservative alumni committed to turning back the clock on coeducation at the University.” But the newspaper also quoted former New Jersey Superior Court judge Andrew Napolitano, who had been a CAP board member from its founding until it shut down, as saying he has “zero recollection of Sam Alito being involved directly or indirectly” with the group.

Alito was asked last year about the CAP matter by the Senate Judiciary Committee in a questionnaire. His response:

Alito: A document I recently reviewed reflects that I was a member of the group in the 1980s. Apart from that document, I have no recollection of being a member, of attending meetings, or otherwise participating in the activities of the group. The group has no current officers from whom more information may be obtained.

In summary, we find nothing false or seriously misleading in this ad. But as often happens, there is more to it than a one-sided, 30-second spot can cover fully.

 – by Justin Bank



Watch MoveOn.org Ad: “Plays One on TV”


Supporting Documents

View Alito 1985 job application

View Alito Letter to Specter

View Alito 2005 Questionnaire


Chanakya Sethi, “Alito ’72 Joined Conservative Alumni Group,” The Daily Princetonian, 18 Nov 2005.

David D. Kirkpatrick, “From Alito’s Past, a Window On Conservatives at Princeton,” New York Times, 27 Nov 2005.

Charles Babington, “Democrats Query Nominee on Ethics,” The Washington Post, 10 Nov 2005.

Wolf Blitzer, “The Situation Room,” CNN, 10 Nov 2005.

Jo Becker and Charles Babington, “No Right to Abortion, Alito Argued in 1985,” Washington Post, 15 Nov 2005.