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A few good laughs

From NBC's Carrie Dann
A crowd of conservatives in Washington were doing a strange thing last night. Less than ten days after a bruising defeat at the polls that cost the GOP its dominance on both sides of the Capitol rotunda, one of the nation's more prominent conservative groups got together and, well, had a few good laughs.

The Federalist Society, an organization of legal professionals, students, and scholars who advocate for a strict interpretation of the Constitution, is celebrating its 25th birthday at their annual conference in Washington, DC this week. So, instead of simply drowning their sorrows via the pappardelle pasta with beurre blanc served at last night's black-tie banquet, the attendees found humor in some unexpected places.

David McIntosh, one of the fellowship's founders, first set the mood by flippantly welcoming the 1,500 or so attendees to their first gathering "in the [Harry] Reid, [Nancy] Pelosi, and Alcee Hastings era." Sen. Mitch McConnell, the freshly-elected leader of the GOP minority in the Senate, noted -- to approving guffaws -- that "forty one [votes] is not an insignificant minority in a body that requires sixty." The stand-out stand-up comedian of the night, however, was none other than the keynote speaker, bookish and bespeckled Justice Samuel Alito. Who would have guessed?

The main topics of Alito's address -- in addition to his warm congratulations to fellow Justice Antonin Scalia, who was being honored for 20 years of service on the Supreme Court -- were judicial restraint and limited government. He urged that serious consideration of the constitutionality of laws be prioritized not only by the judiciary but by all public servants. But when he described for the audience his own experience as a hapless public servant propelled into the national spotlight after his nomination to the Supreme Court last fall, his self-deprecating humor brought a chorus of giggles.

Recalling the intense media attention showered upon him in November 2005, he admitted how utterly perplexed he was by the media's interest in a judge from Newark who previously had gone days at a time without interacting with anyone except his own clerks. Alito was even concerned at the time, he joked, that the pack of photographers and producers would be so pointlessly enamored by him that the whole bunch would tumble from one of the balconies of the Hart Senate Office Building "like a hoard of lemmings."

(As someone who has spent some time in similar hoards of journalistic lemmings, I can report that neither I nor any of the media crews present at the banquet were offended by this amusing but less-than-glamorous sketch of us. We were, however, indignant that we didn't get fed. It's tough to watch 1,500 people eat pappardelle pasta for two hours!)

While most public speakers try to sprinkle in bits of humor, there seemed to be something different about Alito's anecdotes and the other presenters' good-natured jibes at the Democratic Party. They carried a sense of a newly-realized humility and a rediscovered need to fight back as the underdog. And with the next two years shaping up to be a tug-of-war for a judiciary lodged between two bitterly split branches of government, the Federalists will need all the good humor they can get.