Politics & Policy

Stop Smearing Jeff Sessions

Senator Sessions at a press conference on Capitol Hill in 2011. (Reuters photo: Kevin Lamarque)
Progressives’ attacks on the Alabama senator are despicable. They need to stop.

Has the Left learned nothing from this election? Does it not realize that Americans are increasingly immune to hysterical cries of racism, sexism, and homophobia? After crying wolf against a generation of conservative politicians, liberals have apparently decided that they just need to amp up the volume — screaming “Wolf!” at the top of their lungs at a man who simply disagrees with them on some aspects of American constitutional and statutory law.

This is beyond tiresome.

To read the rhetoric about Jeff Sessions, one would think that Donald Trump had nominated a racist monster for attorney general. Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern declared that Sessions would “spell absolute disaster for civil rights in America.” The NAACP’s Sherrilyn Ifill said it was “unimaginable” that he would be the “chief law enforcement officer for the nation’s civil rights laws,” calling him hostile to “equal rights” and to “justice” itself. For sheer ridiculousness, The Hill’s Jonathan Allen topped them all, accusing Sessions of being “beyond the ideological fringe,” calling him a “favorite” of the infamous white-supremacist website Stormfront, and declaring that he had “contempt” for “racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities.”

Here’s the bottom line: Jeff Sessions is a conservative, and that’s the real objection to his nomination. His Democratic opponents are trotting out decades-old charges to try and sink his nomination, but those claims are dubious at best.

First, there is the charge that he once said offensive things about the NAACP and ACLU, calling them “un-American” and “communist-inspired.” This should be silly on its face, but lest anyone grab the smelling salts, I seem to recall the current president of the United States calling his predecessor “unpatriotic,” and the current vice president of the United States claiming that Mitt Romney was going to put black Americans “back in chains.”

Then there are contested allegations that Sessions once called a black attorney “boy” and a white attorney a “disgrace to his race” for representing black clients. No one can adjudicate ancient hearsay, but we can look at the man’s actual record, and that record is “racist” only if one distorts the term beyond all reason, equating leftism with social justice and conservatism with bigotry.

Sessions’s critics endlessly repeat his old joke that he thought the KKK was “OK until [he] found out they smoked pot.” What usually goes unmentioned about this is that as a U.S. attorney for Alabama, he sought and obtained the death penalty for a KKK murderer, and also filed multiple desegregation lawsuits. He enforced the law to protect black Americans from violence, and he vindicated their legal rights when they suffered from unlawful discrimination.

The rest is mere hyperbole.

Critics call him hostile to “voting rights” because he supports voter ID — a de minimis measure designed to protect ballot integrity — and opposes expanded voting rights for felons. These are hardly radical positions. Indeed, large numbers of liberal Americans agree with them.

I don’t expect the Left to support Sessions. It should, however, stop its slanders.

He has been attacked for cheering the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Alabama, which exempted southern states from extraordinary Department of Justice supervision, placing them on the same legal footing as the rest of the country. But those attacks rest on the belief that African-Americans have trouble voting in the South, which is laughable. In fact, black turnout rates are often higher than white turnout rates in southern states, though not necessarily when Democrats run a corrupt white progressive such as Hillary Clinton for the nation’s highest office.

Writing in the New York Times, NYU professor Thomas Sugrue called Sessions’s opposition to judicial supervision of Alabama school funding his “other civil rights problem.” But once again, this is framing the Left’s preferred policies as the very definition of “civil rights.” Sessions has supported school vouchers, a policy that benefits disproportionately poor and minority students, freeing them from failing schools. Should he say that opponents of school choice have a “civil rights problem,” or can we agree that different people might in good faith hold different views on education policy?

As for immigration, Sessions is in broad agreement with National Review on the question, and it is simply tiresome to equate a desire for border controls and a policy of immigration enforcement with racial animus or contempt. I don’t expect liberal Americans to agree with conservative immigration policies, but they should explain their objections to those policies, rather than smearing a man’s character and integrity without compelling evidence.

#related#Yesterday, the Times published a powerful letter to the editor about Sessions. It’s from a former colleague who worked so closely with the future senator that they often shared hotel rooms. He said that Sessions would carry out his duties as attorney general in a “professional, thoughtful, and balanced manner.” It ends, “I am a 71-year-old African-American man, and I think I know a racist when I see one. Jeff Sessions is simply a good and decent man.” That writer is Larry Thompson, deputy attorney general of the United States from 2001 to 2003.

Others, such as the FCC’s Ajit Pai noted that Sessions demonstrated his character in his conduct toward his own staff. He talked about his own time working with Sessions, noting that he “employed a diverse staff of attorneys — during my tenure, his staff consisted of an African-American man, two women, and me, a first-generation Indian-American.” Doesn’t sound much like the staff you’d expect to be built by a racist, does it?

I don’t expect the Left to support Sessions. It should, however, stop its slanders. He isn’t a wolf at the door; he’s just a conservative, and an honorable one at that. Anyone who pretends otherwise should be ashamed.

UPDATE: In the piece above, I wrote that as a U.S. attorney in Alabama Sessions “sought and obtained” the death penalty for a KKK murderer. I do not mean to imply that he was the trial attorney in the case. He was not. Specifically, as U.S. Attorney, he helped facilitate the state court prosecution of the case and later, as Alabama’s attorney general, he helped to make sure the penalty was imposed. You can read more complete details here

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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