In a few hours, the Senate will vote on whether Senator Jeff Sessions is worthy of being confirmed as Attorney General of the United States.
He’s faced opposition before. During his confirmation for a Federal judgeship in 1986, Sen. Ted Kennedy led the charge against him, and a condemnatory letter from Coretta Scott King was read into the Senate record. After that, his name never made it out of committee. And last night, the letter was read again and the speech excerpted — but this time with a different result.
Every major media outlet is talking about Senator Warren’s fiery oration and her subsequent censure. It’s widely viewed as a triumph for the Democratic opposition, and given the present state of the national dialogue it may well become so, a rallying point behind which resistance to the administration’s policies can coalesce.
And yet, neither the censured speech nor the original letter exist in a vacuum. There is history there, and it’s important to view these in context in order to distill the truth of the matter at hand.
Some of us are too young to remember this, so here’s a reminder: Terrorists were bombing aircraft and nightclubs; LISTSERV, the first automated email manager, had just been invented; the Cold War was in full swing, and the Republicans controlled the Senate against a hostile House under a charismatic and popular president.
When Sessions was nominated for a Federal judgeship, there was a massive backlog of vacancies in the courts due to political divisions, but he was expected to sail through unopposed. He had a great deal of experience in his field; he was the current U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama after having served in the office for over a decade. He had just finished an unsuccessful yet highly publicized prosecution for voter fraud, during which he had managed to embarrass the local Democratic Party machine and several prominent civil rights workers.
During the hearings of the Senate Judiciary Committee, however, his record in the U.S. Attorney’s office was examined, and Senator Ted Kennedy led a brilliant fight against his nomination. Among other things, he produced a letter from King’s widow condemning Sessions, and he arranged for what was customarily a private committee session to be presented to the press. So well was his battle fought that senators from the majority Republicans were persuaded to cross lines and oppose the nomination, which then died in committee.
It is from Kennedy’s speech and this very letter that Warren read, and which led to her censure. But to understand this better, we must go back another year and examine the facts of the case for which Sessions was condemned.
For at least the preceding two elections, former aide to the late Reverend King, political activist, and family friend Albert Turner had been accused of perpetrating voter fraud. Specifically, in violation of Alabama law, it was alleged that he had handled absentee ballots while a candidate, and that he had altered them. A grand jury refused to indict him in 1982, despite a great deal of compelling evidence — including, we’re told, the testimony of a handwriting expert that Turner had written his own name on several ballots.
The office of the U.S. Attorney can take action in such a case even when a grand jury fails to indict, but Sessions reportedly refused, believing that Turner had been warned by the proceedings and that this would be the end of it. However, in 1984, two black Democratic officials, Kinard and Billingslea, whose candidacies were being opposed by Turner, contacted the U.S. Attorney’s office with a complaint that it was happening again. Sessions ordered an investigation, and soon had enough evidence to make a compelling case.
Despite compelling evidence, however, the defendants (Turner, his wife, and one Spencer Hogue) were acquitted on all charges. Sessions believes that this was, in part, due to the massive and very expensive legal defense team that was brought in; he also admits that his office failed to present their case properly, largely through lack of staff. It seems clear that he still believes the defendants were quite obviously guilty.
(For more on this, please view the note at the end of the article.)
Senator Elizabeth Warren is not known for her restraint. Quite the contrary; she’s an impassioned champion of her chosen causes, and at present her causes appear to be the Democratic Party, indefatigable opposition to the appointments and policies of President Trump, and the promotion of the rights and freedoms of the disenfranchised. So when she speaks, strongly and at length, on any subject at all, people listen to her.
Her statement against Senator Sessions and his appropriateness for a role in the Cabinet was vehement even by Warren standards. She began by a personal condemnation, and then she quoted Kennedy’s speech from 1986 and read the letter by King’s widow. While speaking, she was warned about her comments by the sitting chair, and while engaged in reading the letter, the Majority Leader stood and interrupted her, citing the previous warning and Rule 19, which permits the censure of any senator for openly insulting another. She was then silenced and censured.
Overnight, her speech became a sensation in the press, and she’s been giving interviews ever since. Her actions have been praised by her party and the public supports her. We do so love an underdog, and she seems to be on the side of good and right.
But it must be remembered that she did in fact violate a rule of the Senate, one that exists for good reason in a forum known for passionate speechmaking. Likewise, her quote was from a politically-motivated diatribe, and the letter from which she read was written by a public figure in defense of the reputation of a family friend. This calls into question her motives, and shows a brave and impassioned stand to actually be a well-orchestrated political stunt, a performance designed to create a media circus.
And it has succeeded. Brilliantly.
Bear in mind: Elizabeth Warren may well be right. Sessions may in fact be a closet racist; he may be totally unsuited for the office for which he was proposed. As Chuck Schumer said the other day, he may well be unwilling to stand up to the President on an issue of law, which is thought by many to be the primary job of the Attorney General.
It is important to note that almost everyone important to the 1985 case is now dead. Kennedy and King and Turner are all now beyond our ability to question, and if the truth is now in doubt then it can never really be known. All we do know is that Sessions is very highly regarded on both sides of the aisle — or was, before Trump.
And so, in her action, all I can see right now is a very cynical attempt to manipulate the voting public for what seems to be partisan and personal reasons.
Is she justified in so doing? When we know we cannot win a fight by the rules, and if the fight is an important one, is it acceptable to go outside the rules, and (in this case) to try her case in the press? (Isn’t that actually an essential skill for a politician?) And, in the general sense, is the Democratic Party justified in their concerted effort to delay or even derail the confirmations process — especially in the face of a hostile administration skilled at dominating the media cycle?
I’ll tell you plainly: I don’t know.
What I do know — and this is certain — is that the answer to those questions is for you to decide, whether in your protests or your calls to Senate offices, your letters and telegrams, and above all in your votes come the mid-term elections, and when Warren runs for President in 2020.
[NOTE: Loath though I am to introduce an article from Breitbart as a source, everything I’ve been able to fact-check here is verifiable. Specifically, the Billingslea letter excerpted and the testimony of the Shelton family are accurately reported. You can read the article here; remember, if you do, that I’ve only fact-checked the section marked Perry County Voter Fraud Case. Some of the rest is, as we’ve come to expect of Breitbart, somewhat slanted at best, but that section at least seems perfectly accurate in matters of fact.
An opposing piece appeared in the Washington Post and can be found here; I’ve found some significant omissions there, but it too is broadly accurate. It’s odd that it accuses Sessions for his inactivity in civil rights through the 50s and 60s, since he was in grade school at the time; it’s likewise notable that the Post article fails to mention that the action was brought against Turner et al at the request of black Democrat officials he was opposing, which on the face of it rather undermines any accusation that the case was brought from racial motives. My judgment, then, is that the Post article is at least as slanted in the one direction as the Breitbart article is in the other — worthy of mention because the Post is usually only slightly biased.
Kennedy’s 1986 speech references remarks by a co-worker of Sessions who was not at all a fan. Because these have largely been discredited, I’m not going to discuss them further.]