NAACP officials have already been arrested in an anti–Jeff Sessions protest. The Alabama senator’s confirmation battle as attorney general is sure to generate lots of heat and very little light. He will likely prevail, but not before his name is dragged through the gutter in an execrable exercise in contemporary racial politics.
At least Sessions is familiar with how this works. He went through the experience in 1986 when his nomination to a federal judgeship was rejected by a U.S. Senate committee on spurious grounds.
The outcome of that kangaroo trial is practically the first sentence in every article and petition opposing Sessions, and has become an endless warrant for calling him a racist, usually without his accusers even seriously trying to back up their allegations. Didn’t the Senate reject Sessions for racial insensitivity in 1986? What else is there to know?
The legend of the 1986 hearings lives on every time a media organization or a Democrat refers to Sessions speaking favorably of the KKK. The Sessions statement came in the course of an investigation into a hideous Klan murder of a black man whose throat was slit and corpse hung from a tree.
Barry Kowalski was a trial lawyer from the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department at the time. He recalled in 1986 Senate testimony that he was explaining to Sessions how it was difficult to nail down what the Klansmen were doing one night because they had smoked marijuana and their memories were fuzzy. It was then that Sessions said he used to support the Klan until he learned they smoked pot.
It never pays to try to explain a joke to people who are humorless out of professional obligation, but the point of the mordant comment was that Sessions was referring to the very least of the Klan’s sins. In his Senate testimony, Sessions compared it to saying he opposed Pol Pot for wearing alligator shoes. This is how the line was understood by rational human beings who heard it at the time.
Kowalski told the committee that prosecutors working such a gruesome case sometimes “resort to operating-room humor, and that is what I considered it to be.” The only person who professed to take the line as a serious endorsement of the non-pot-smoking Klan was Sessions’s main accuser, a black prosecutor in his office, Thomas Figures, whose credibility should be in doubt based on this tendentious testimony alone. (Figures was indicted in 1992 for bribing a witness and died in 2015.)
Besides Figures, the other main witness against Sessions was yet another DOJ lawyer, Gerald Hebert, who testified that Sessions said “racially insensitive” things, although these conversations were ambiguous as well.
Hebert nonetheless praised Sessions’s performance. “I have prosecuted cases that are highly sensitive and very controversial and, quite frankly, unpopular in the Southern District,” he said. “And yet I have needed Mr. Sessions’s help in those cases and he has provided that help every step of the way.” He deemed Sessions “a man of his word.”
Another DOJ lawyer, Daniel Bell, called Sessions “quite helpful” in a difficult civil-rights prosecution. Larry Thompson, a black prosecutor based in Atlanta, said Sessions was extraordinarily solicitous of his work, and they roomed together while traveling.
This is not the portrait of a racist, and if Sessions harbored the views attributed to him by his critics, they would presumably have had some concrete evidence of it over the past 30 years of his public life. Usually, what his detractors say is that he considers the Voting Rights Act overly intrusive — but so does a majority of the United States Supreme Court.
The characteristic line after an experience like Sessions had in 1986 is, “Where do I go to get my reputation back?” The answer is that you don’t get it back. The charge of racism is too powerful and convenient for the Left ever to recant, as Sessions will soon learn, once again.
— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review.