THE ANNOUNCEMENT this week that Samuel A. Alito Jr. is taking Harriet E. Miers’ place as President Bush’s nominee for the Supreme Court should make it clear to everyone that his picks for the high court have nothing to do with the ideological makeup of the Supremes and everything to do with crossword puzzles.
I mean, “Alito”? It’s a fantastic name for crosswords -- a mere five letters long but brimming with regularly used consonants and vowels (and how generously alternating they are!). Alito, if confirmed, might find himself as the next Eero Saarinen (for years, the hottest architect on the crossword scene) or the next Ernie Els (the hottest crossword golfer, although Michelle Wie is creeping up on him).
Of course, cruciverbally speaking, everything would also have been just fine with a Miers appointment. Except that Miers, one could argue, was an even better find than Alito. Her last name, too, offers a compact, easy-to-intersect set of letters that would work well in crosswords, but the variant spelling of her middle name, Ellan, makes her the double threat that Alito is not.
Never mind their first names. They offer nothing new for crosswords. “Playwright Becket” or “Composer Barber” come quickly to mind as possible clues for “Samuel,” and, of course, the answer to the clue “Underground Railroad hero Tubman” would be “Harriet.” These names have appeared on numerous occasions in the crossword puzzles of the country’s most distinguished newspapers. But has “Ellan” ever been an answer to a crossword clue in the Washington Post? No. Has “Miers” ever appeared in the grid of a puzzle in the Los Angeles Times? Nope. And has “Alito” ever been written down, using either pencil or pen, on the crossword page of the New York Times? Never. Or at least not since cruciverb.com started keeping track.
In 1870, Ulysses S. Grant nominated a Massachusetts politician, Ebenezer R. Hoar, to the Supreme Court. Hoar didn’t make the cut; only 24 of 57 senators voted for him. While this could have been a horrible blow to crossword constructors and solvers (who, actually, would not begin to exist for another 40 years), the fact is that “hoar” has been an answer in crossword puzzles for decades, without the help of Grant’s nominee. It was the answer to the clue “Cold covering” in the Washington Post, “Frost” in the Los Angeles Times and “Icy coating” in the New York Times.
But “Ellan,” “Miers” and “Alito” have no such proxies, at least that I’m aware of. Would I want either of these folks on the Supreme Court? Hardly. I’m way left of liberal. It’s difficult for me to even type the word “fantastic” so soon after typing “Alito.”
But as a crossword constructor, I see a silver lining in having an Alito as an associate justice.
Is there any hope in politics for a puzzle writer who also happens to be pro-choice, pro-affirmative action and very much in favor of a raise in the minimum wage?
Well, there’s a guy from Illinois who goes by this great crossword name: Barack Obama.