Sessions, Ellison and Character Assassination
In the wake of the Republicans’ victory in the 2016 presidential election, Sen. Jeff Sessions became Donald Trump’s choice for U.S. attorney general. Meanwhile, in the fog-of-war confusion in Democrats’ ranks, Rep. Keith Ellison became the choice of many progressives to lead the Democratic National Committee back to the promised land.
Sessions and Ellison represent, almost literally, polar opposites on our political spectrum. Yet they share a bond: Each man has been on the receiving end of the character assassination that’s now a permanent feature of our politics.
Jeff Sessions is a racist. That’s what Democrats claim. It’s an ugly accusation, absent any real evidence; yet they’ve been saying it about him since the Reagan administration. Keith Ellison, one of two Muslims in Congress, is an anti-Semite whose hostility toward Israel cloaks an animus toward Jews. That’s the story being pushed by many conservative Republicans—and mainstream Democrats and Jewish groups.
Do either of these narratives sound plausible? Let’s look at the record, starting with Rep. Ellison. While running for re-election in 2010, he made this assertion: “United States policy in the Middle East is governed by what is good or bad [for] a country of 7 million people.”
Personally, I’m a Zionist who loves Israel, so that description wouldn’t bother me if it were true, which it is obviously isn’t. But why is that “disqualifying,” the term used by the Anti-Defamation League?
Keith Ellison was 19 years old when he gravitated toward Islam. He was raised by parents who were devout Catholics, but the kind who let their kids choose their own paths. One of his brothers became a Baptist pastor. Keith, who found Catholicism too infused with “rules and regulations,” considered himself agnostic by the time he was a Wayne State University sophomore.
In his recollection, Ellison was preparing for a calculus test when a study pal, a native of Libya, excused himself by saying he was going to Friday prayers. Ellison was invited to tag along. He liked it from the moment he saw the shoes lined up outside the mosque’s prayer room, and liked what he heard, too. He began reading the Koran and frequenting the local Muslim Center. When he was sworn in to the House of Representatives in 2007, he took the oath on a copy of the Koran once owned by Thomas Jefferson.
Although Islam is still exotic to many, Ellison’s spiritual sojourn is really a quintessential American faith journey. It’s also true that along the way, especially in his early stages, he went off the rails occasionally. In a student editorial for the school newspaper he described Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan—who really is a virulent anti-Semite—as a “role model for Black Youth.”
These words have come back to haunt him. This doesn’t seem fair to Ellison, or to me. “I’m 53 years old,” he told Politico recently. “I have four kids. My youngest child is 20. Some of the things they want to hit me for, I was younger than her when I wrote them. And so, come on. At some point, we all are human beings who have evolved over the course of 25 years, and yet we want to freeze each other in time.”
Amen to that, Brother Keith.
Everything about the conservative Jeff Sessions, starting with his full name—Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III—screams Southern aristocracy. He’s a Methodist, a former Eagle Scout, a University of Alabama law school grad, a former captain in U.S. Army Reserve. He was appointed U.S. attorney in Alabama by President Reagan. But when Reagan tried to elevate him to the federal bench, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee ambushed him.
Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts called Sessions “a throwback to a shameful era” in U.S. race relations and “a disgrace to the Justice Department.” There was scant evidence for this. Two witnesses before the Judiciary Committee, both federal prosecutors who worked with Sessions, testified that in private conversation he could be racially insensitive. J. Gerald Hebert asserted that Sessions had called the ACLU and NAACP “un-American” and “Communist-inspired.” He said that Sessions once told him those the two groups “forced civil rights down the throats of people.”
A veteran civil rights litigator, Hebert acknowledged that the more conservative lawyer might have been baiting him while they engaged in a “spirited debate” over civil rights. Asked point-blank by Sen. Jeremiah Denton whether he considered Sessions a racist, Hebert replied, “No, I do not.”
A second ex-colleague, a politically active black Democrat named Thomas Figures, told the committee that Sessions had occasionally called him “boy” and admonished him when Figures spoke harshly to a female white clerk in the office. Figures also said that Sessions once told a group of lawyers that he didn’t think the Ku Klux Klan was all that bad until he found out they smoked marijuana before going out to terrorize blacks.
This was understood by the others present to be a joke. It couldn’t have been anything else when one considers the context: Sessions and the other government lawyers in the room were planning the prosecution of two Klansmen for the lynching of a black man. Sessions was making sure that federal authorities were giving Alabama law enforcement all the help it needed to ensure that the perpetrators were given the death penalty. The Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, led by Joe Biden and Ted Kennedy, weren’t interested in that. As it turned out, they were engaged in a dress rehearsal for what turned out to be the ritual sacrifice of Reagan Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork.
Sessions went back to Alabama, ran for state attorney general, and then the U.S. Senate. But a “racist” tag is not easy to shake. Earlier this month, Jesse Jackson wrote of Sessions’ supposed “long history of venom towards people of color.”
Jefferson B. Sessions III is certainly a very conservative lawmaker who opposed everything from the bank bailout of 2008 to all three of President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees. Democrats who want to vote against confirming him have ample grounds. But they shouldn’t call him a racist to do it. Jesse Jackson, a minister of the Gospel, should know better than most not to engage in this kind of thing—especially at this time of the year.
The man whose birth Christians celebrate today preached to Jews, as a Jew. This self-taught rabbi had an idea so radical that’s it’s still revolutionary today. Jesus of Nazareth reminded his disciples that the Old Testament teaches us to love our neighbors. This is right, Jesus said, but it is not enough. Here’s the new commandment He gave us: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
God bless us, everyone.