These presidential Cabinet confirmation hearings are unsettling things at times. Generally they’re either a cakewalk with lots of confetti and blown kisses landing upon the nominee. But sometimes they can turn into particularly horrible instances of figuratively ripping the meat off someone’s bones.
While the actual hearing itself hasn’t been too terrible for Sen. Jeff Sessions as he attempts to become the nation’s next attorney general, the lead-up and surrounding furor have once again called attention to just how easy it is in this country to have your very character tarred and feathered in the name of politics.
Perhaps I’m being naïve, but the level of antipathy toward Sessions in the wake of his nomination by the highly polarizing President-elect Donald Trump has been surprising. Sure, I was aware of the allegations against Sessions that scuttled his nomination for a federal judgeship 30 years ago and understand why those might have had more weight at that time, as they had taken place in the not-so-distant past.
But three decades later it’s not like there’s continued evidence Sessions has been a serial racist. If you believe the things said about him in the ‘80s, does that necessarily mean he’s the same man 30 years later? For much of the media and most of those who didn’t vote for Trump, the answer seems to be a resounding “yes.”
It always goes back to the basic concept that people who hold different political views must essentially be bad people. Conservatives are racists and homophobes. Liberals are communists who want government control of our very thoughts. So sinking the nomination of someone who is a “radical” becomes a matter of great importance, and the methods are justified by the outcome.
Think back to how ridiculous U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearing was — hijacked by discussions of a pubic hair on a Coke can and the public outrage over the obvious sexual harassment conducted by the nominee. The whole thing seems silly now, but back then it was a sure sign Thomas would trample women’s rights, you know, so he could make pube jokes.
Allegations of racism or sexism are pretty tough things because they stay with you. Thomas has forever been haunted by that Coke can, and Sessions’ alleged racist statements were the first thing dredged up about him when Trump announced his nomination.
Certainly a fair look at someone’s record and past statements is warranted when we’re talking about confirming a Supreme Court justice or attorney general, but in this highly politicized time something approaching balance is tough to achieve. Sessions’ opponents have even taken to calling him by his full name, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, just like the Obama birthers loved to call the president Barack Hussein Obama.
To some, Sessions’ Southern-sounding name is just more proof he’s racist. A New York Times article even traced it back to the fact that the senator’s grandfather had been named to honor Confederate President Jefferson Davis. God knows a guy who was probably named in the late 1800s has a lot of bearing on his grandson’s views.
As I’ve mentioned here before, I didn’t vote for either of the two major party presidential candidates. And while I worked on Capitol Hill on the same hallway as Sen. Sessions, I’ve never really had much of a conversation with him. He was always very quiet — even in the elevator it was tough to get much out of him. And in nearly 15 years of running this newspaper we’ve never really had much contact. So I have no real feel for his personality. But just based upon what I’ve read about his past and voting record, it’s hard to see some conclusive evidence that he hates African-Americans.
Frankly, looking at his record, his accumulation of wealth as a public servant might be a more tangible issue for those on the committee who want to defeat him. Then again there probably aren’t too many members of Congress who want to start peeling the lid off their own personal wealth. That could get ugly in a hurry.
By the time this comes out, Sessions most likely will have been confirmed, but at what personal price? He’s moved from being a pretty quiet member of the Senate to the centerpiece in this country’s never-ending battle over racism.
Another publication in the state wrote a story last week claiming Sessions had blocked all the black nominees the Clinton administration had sent up to fill a federal judgeship in south Alabama. But, as with most things surrounding Sessions’ confirmation, a little context makes such damning points a little less piercing.
As I read the story it dawned on me that one of those nominees had been our own spanking judge, Herman Thomas. As the writer condemned Sessions for blocking black judges, I was left thinking maybe we owe the senator a thank you for blocking a guy who got in trouble for spanking prisoners, was alleged to have used his power to force them into sex and who remains disbarred to this day because of his actions. I shudder imagining Herman Thomas as a federal judge.
Now I’d be amazed if all of the judicial nominees sent up had Thomas’ “checkered” past, but it at least makes you wonder who the others were and whether there were reasons they never got confirmed. It also shows just how much people are willing to overlook to win their political argument.
The longest-serving member of the U.S. Senate ever was Robert Byrd of West Virginia, a guy who had been an honest-to-God member of the Ku Klux Klan. Byrd served several top positions in the Senate, including president pro tempore, which put him third in the line of succession to the president after the vice president and speaker of the house. Byrd was also a Democrat. Somewhere along the line his past overt racism became a non-issue to some of the same people who now despise Sessions.
I’m not arguing for Sessions’ confirmation or saying he never made inappropriate comments. I really have no idea if he did or didn’t. Hopefully he’ll be a good AG and uphold and interpret the laws in ways that equally protect every American. At the very minimum it would be nice if everyone can at least start living in the present and focus on what he does next.