‘The Sessions Smear’

by Rich Lowry

I wrote about the Sessions confirmation battle today for Politico, and went back and looked at the 1986 hearings when he was rejected for a judgeship, which were a travesty. This is the back-story, for instance, of his comment about the KKK that we’ll hear so much about over the next week:

The legend of the 1986 hearings lives on every time a media organization or a Democrat refers to Sessions saying that the KKK was OK with him until he learned it smoked pot. This is used as a handy weapon, not wielded particularly carefully. On “This Week with George Stephanopolos” a couple of weeks ago, Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons described it as Sessions saying “nice things about the KKK.”

This is a lesson in how to smear a man based on an absurd misunderstanding of a 40-year-old joke. 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 in a house 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.” Another DOJ lawyer, Albert Glenn, said, “It never occurred to me that there was any seriousness to it.”

Kowalski, by the way, told the committee that Sessions was absolutely committed to nailing the killers and he became convinced that “he was eager to see that justice was done in the area of criminal civil rights prosecutions.”

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