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Answering Peggy Noonan: Why Sotomayor Should Withdraw

A columnist's call for Republicans to grow up gets a response.

By 6.2.09

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Peggy, can we talk?

Columnist Peggy Noonan over at the Wall Street Journal has written her usual thoughtful piece this last week. Her subject? What, exactly, should be the Republican response to the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court?

"Republicans, Let's Play Grown Up," she suggests, saying the Sotomayor hearings are an opportunity for a serious debate. Along the way, she says this: "Newt Gingrich twitters that Judge Sotomayor is a racist. Does anyone believe that?"

In the interest of obliging on her first point -- the need for a serious debate -- and answering her second -- does anyone believe the Judge is a racist?-- a response follows.

Before I begin, I must fairly inform the reader that, for reasons I don't understand I've never met Peggy Noonan. We were in fact down the hall colleagues in the Reagan White House. With a sheepish amusement I recall exactly the moment I first saw her -- she entering the West Wing as I was leaving -- and thinking to myself: who was THAT girl in the black turtleneck?! It was, of course, Ms. Noonan, one of the president's most accomplished speechwriters (and there were several of those). Alas, thoroughly preoccupied with my own turf, I never got to meet her and sometime thereafter she left, far too soon.

So. Peggy.

I enjoyed your latest on the proper response by Republicans to Judge Sotomayor's nomination. As always, thought provoking. You raised a serious point in citing Newt Gingrich's remark that the Judge is a racist, asking, "Does anyone believe that?"

Between us, I have to say the answer is "yes" -- I do believe it.

A personal story, if I may.

You and I come from similar backgrounds. As you grew up in Massapequa, Long Island, my parents and thus both sides of our extended family came from Riverhead, a ways further out on the Island. After the war, my impending arrival decided them, newly married and living/working in Manhattan, on the appeal of life in a New England town. For my first fifteen years, life was spent in the idyllic precincts of Northampton, Massachusetts, a young life filled with friends, school, church and bike rides along the leafy streets of a Northeastern American college town.

Dad was in the hotel business, his first and true professional love being hotel management. It wasn't Mom's -- she was not a fan of the 24/7 nature of the business. So for a while he got out and had an insurance business as I pedaled placidly from one grade to another. This gave both of them time for politics, and they were for a while very active. Dad was even elected to Calvin Coolidge's old seat on the Northampton City Council, and, for lack of a baby sitter, I was toted to any number of Lincoln Day Dinners. By 1965, however, it was clear to both my parents that Dad was happiest in the hotel business. To my dismay, we said goodbye to the only life I had ever known and headed to a small southern town where Dad was to be the manager of a brand new hotel for a well-known national chain.

This was a considerable bit of culture shock for our little family unit of three. Our Northern roots made us "Yankees" in the vernacular of our new Southern home. The news of the day as brought to us through television in Massachusetts had been about the racial turmoil of civil rights marches, fire hoses and police dogs. It was appalling -- but distant. There was not a black soul to be seen in Northampton as I recall.

So our arrival in this Southern town, which I will not name, provided a sensation of distinctive aloneness for the newly arrived family of Yankees. Accents were different. Country music, not rock and roll, was the norm of the local radio station. Something called grits was a culinary specialty. There was lots of "yes sir-ring" and "no ma'm-ing" that was unheard of in the brisker climes of the North.

There was a something else, too. Racism.

Calling on a prominent local couple as my father's job dictated, my mother and I looked at each other in quiet astonishment as the wife announced that her handyman -- a black man -- had had the temerity to knock and enter through her front door instead of the back. Worse, he had sat down on her living room sofa. Until recently, she made quite clear, this kind of behavior was unheard of. "Can you believe it!" she kept repeating in a refined accent worthy of Scarlett O'Hara. "The n… came right here into my front room and sat on my parlor sofa!" Afterwards my mother and I discussed this for hours. Never in either of our lives had we ever encountered this kind of racial attitude.

I attended school at a thoroughly modern high school, grades 8-12. There was a duplicate a bare six miles away -- for the black kids. Except that this was 1965 and integration was arriving. There was one black girl in our school -- one among about a thousand white kids. Maxine was her name. She was in my French class and rode my school bus, since we both lived on the same route. While she was actually closer to the "black" school her parents wanted her to go to the allegedly better "white school" -- and thanks to the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, she could and did exercise that right. Now that the law was slowly -- very slowly -- taking effect, she was literally the first black child in the area to do so. Shy but friendly, I made friends with Maxine because, it finally struck me, I was one of the few kids who would speak with her. We were both outsiders, something that her blackness and my new face and New England accent only emphasized. ("He talks like one of them damn Kinidy boys" was a comment I overhead.)

After about two weeks, I began to realize that when Maxine boarded the school bus coming and going every day, something odd happened. School buses have seats for two, and as such the safety rules require only two kids can sit in the same seat. Curiously, I realized the other kids were scrunching three and sometimes four in a seat with the silent assent of the bus driver -- because no one would sit with Maxine. I talked with my parents. I knew who Rosa Parks was, and I certainly knew of Dr. King. But there was no pretension to leading some sort of teen-age crusade. I was just mad. Maxine was being deliberately, quite publicly humiliated because of her race. Since she was picked up in the morning well after I was, my chance would only come in the afternoon when everyone boarded the bus at the same time. That next afternoon, as school ended and we all clambered noisily aboard the bus, I took a determined breath and sat down with Maxine.

You could hear the proverbial pin drop. For the entire ride to her home no one said a word -- except Maxine and me as we shyly chatted about French class. When she got off the bus, the silence gave way to taunts. Friendly kid that I was, I just grinned. And did it again the next day, and the next and the next. Friends were eventually made, and after a very long time -- almost the rest of the school year -- Maxine got other seatmates than me. But it was abundantly clear that racism, as thick as it could be cut, was in the air.

Meanwhile, Dad had a bigger problem. As was his customary practice, he would always leave the house after dinner and go tour the hotel one last time for the night. Checking to see that all is well in the disparate parts of one of these operations, he said, was a managerial must. That particular night he walked into the hotel coffee shop, stumbling into an incident that would change his -- and our -- lives. The hotel owner, perhaps intoxicated, was in the process of publicly berating a frightened waitress. She was black. The owner, white. Dad said racial epithets filled the air. Loud. Abusive. Humiliating. Very, very public. In an instant my father physically positioned himself between the terrified, tearful black waitress and the white owner, telling the owner that whatever the young woman had done or not done (it was something of a trivial nature), this behavior towards an employee was unacceptable. Whereupon the owner promptly fired both the waitress and my father. On the spot.

Now what? Dad had moved our family hundreds of miles from familiar turf. Civil rights -- racism -- was no longer an abstract. This wasn't grainy gray images of Walter Cronkite from the old Zenith. This was real life, vividly so. Shaken but determined, Dad decided to try again. Taking the family savings he bought an old diner in the middle of town, turning it into one of the new fashionables of the day -- a pancake house. There was a glistening new grill in the window so passersby could see the product being made. He interviewed for cooks.

Now came "mistake" number two. The best qualified cook was a black woman. He gave her the job. A job that meant she had supervisory authority over others -- who were white. Word spread like wildfire that Dad had made a black woman a boss over whites -- men and women both. Only months ago as the manager of the brand new hotel in town he was a new part of the town gentry, a regular attendee at Rotary meetings and the like. Now, his restaurant was boycotted and he was the subject of scorn, fighting for his --- and our -- economic survival. I will never forget the sight of my dad, the collar of his old World War II jacket up to protect against the cold (a jacket that bore the insignia of a Captain of army artillery) walking the streets to hand out fliers advertising his pancakes, all too frequently to be brusquely ignored. Sometimes, after school or on weekends, I went with him.

It was no use. Phone calls were coming into the house now. Ugly, whispering anonymous calls to my mother. The "n… lover" phrase snarled through the phone line. The water was cut off, requiring a special trip to the water department to verify that yes, the bill had already been paid. Did Mom wish to register to vote as a Republican? Sorry, said the registrar -- the books were in the attic. Get them, Mom said with a smile. I'll wait.

There's more here, but you get the idea. After two years of this Dad simply had to yield to common sense and our family retreated across the Mason-Dixon line to Pennsylvania, which is the family home today. He passed away just shy of 90 not long ago. I mentioned this story in his eulogy, startling his friends who had never heard it. Mom, I assure you, has never forgotten.

As a lesson in racism, this was, for me, a "defining moment." Kids being kids, I spent lots of conversations discussing race with my white classmates. Gingerly at first, curiously and eventually quite openly, my classmates opened up. Both boys and girls. Racism, I learned, was not a gender thing. I heard many arguments about the importance of the white race. About the superiority of the white brain. About the need to maintain racial distinctions and accept the wisdom of whites over blacks. To my mother's horror I was invited to a Klan meeting as the guest of a classmate's uncle. Politely, the invitation was declined. My classmates and I just agreed to disagree on the subject. I made friends, was elected a class officer, had a girlfriend. But I was exposed to the very hard reality that racism could so permeate someone's thinking that they never think twice about it. Casual racial references are made that are simply off the charts -- yet no one speaks up because in that universe this behavior is considered the norm.

WHAT DOES ALL THIS have to do with Judge Sotomayor?

There is much more to her now-famous "wise Latina" speech.

Here are other sections from Judge Sotomayor's speech, the full text courtesy of the New York Times.

To illustrate the point I have changed the racial and gender references:

* "I intend tonight to touch upon the themes that this conference will be discussing this weekend and to talk to you about my white identity, where it came from, and the influence I perceive it has on my presence on the bench."

* "The story of that success is what made me and what makes me the white man that I am. The white side of my identity was forged and closely nurtured by my family through our shared experiences and traditions."

* "My white soul was nourished as I visited and played at my grandmother's house with my cousins and extended family."

* "I became a white man by the way I love and the way I live my life."

* "I simply do not know exactly what that difference will be in my judging. But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my white heritage."

* "Each day on the bench I learn something new about the judicial process and about being a professional white man in a world that sometimes looks at me with suspicion."

What voice do I hear when I listen to a speech like this, Peggy? I hear the chilling voice of racism that whispered over the phone line to my mother. I hear the ugly, threatening voice that had reduced a frightened young black waitress to tears before firing both her and my father. I hear the townspeople who were too angry or scared to come and eat a simple pancake because to do so would acknowledge the skill and authority of a black woman. I hear a bunch of white teen-age kids earnestly explaining to me about racial superiority and why it was unacceptable to share a school bus seat with a lonely, uneasy black teenage girl.

Peggy, after you left the White House I spent a considerable amount of time working on the Reagan Supreme Court nominations along with our colleagues. Five of them -- Rehnquist for Chief Justice, Scalia, Bork, Douglas Ginsburg, and Anthony Kennedy. I'm not a lawyer but somehow acquired a considerable interest and knowledge of the ins and outs of what is in reality a rather arcane process. Years afterward, I helped get a friend confirmed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals as a Bush 43 nominee, writing a piece on it over in the Weekly Standard for Bill Kristol and later turning it into a small book about the thuggish nature the left had made of the whole process.

In the course of all this I was able to spend time connecting the dots from the racism my family had experienced to the role of the Supreme Court. Three cases specifically come to mind that raise red flags on a judge like Sotomayor who is seemingly so obsessed with race. The first, of course, would be the notorious Dred Scott v. Sandford case, in which a racist (and slave holding) Chief Justice Roger Taney used his "cultural experience" (as Sotomayor advocates) to, in the words of Judge Robert Bork, "read into the Constitution the legality of slavery forever."

Have you ever read that decision, Peggy? It's truly vile. Among the sentiments expressed by a man who was no less than Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court was the idea that blacks were "so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect." This was exactly the thought being acted out by the white owner of that hotel when he fired my Dad and the black waitress. Maybe he knew about Dred Scott -- he was an educated man -- and maybe he didn't. But he certainly had every reason to believe that his actions were socially acceptable. Dred Scott is one piece -- one prominent piece -- in a cultural mosaic that told him so. By using race as the basis for this particular Supreme Court decision, Taney's presence on the Court helped launch the Civil War.

Next was Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 decision in which judicial activism was married to Sotomayor-style racial politics to deny the plainest of readings of the 14th Amendment. The result was the "separate but equal" logic -- segregation -- that was directly responsible for the all-black duplicate of my Southern school in 1965 -- the legal stick that my friend Maxine had to live with most of her young life. Tellingly, Judge Sotomayor's speech favorably mentions the third case, 1954's Brown v. Board of Education that desegregated American schools. What she does not mention is the reason Brown was necessary in the first place. Brown had to undo the very considerable damage done by Plessy, which was a direct result of activist Supreme Court justices -- as Sotomayor aspires to be -- forcing their racial worldview on America through the Supreme Court, the 14th Amendment be damned.

Without belaboring the point, although this didn't affect us, there was also Korematsu v. United States, the 1944 decision that sent over 100,000 Japanese-Americans off to internment camps without so much as a by-your-leave to the Fifth Amendment. Once again, race and the Supreme Court intersected. That decision, Peggy, was written by Justice Hugo Black. Justice Black, an FDR appointee, had been a proud member of the Ku Klux Klan who was so well thought of by the Klan he was given a "gold passport."

One last observation.

When one takes a good long look at the arc of the Democratic Party from its founding by Thomas Jefferson in 1800 (historians generally credit, as you know, both Jefferson and Andrew Jackson as co-founders of the modern-day Democrats) up until today there is one very, very disturbing constant. The politics of race.

Beginning with slavery, moving on to segregation, lynching, racial quotas and what today is called "identity politics," the one straight line through each and connecting each is racial politics. Clustered along that line are all manner of people with varying historical reputations. The clusters begin with slave-owners Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson -- the latter appointing his friend, fellow slave-owner, decided racist and ex-Attorney General Roger Taney as Chief Justice. There are people like Woodrow Wilson (who segregated the federal government) and Josephus Daniels (FDR's boss at the Wilson Navy Department). Then the FDR Supreme Court picks of segregationists Black and James Byrnes. Keep moving along the line and you find George Wallace and eventually Al Sharpton, and Obama allies like Jeremiah Wright and Father Michael Pfleger. The skin color may change, but the core of the message does not.

What all of these people (and so many, many more) have in common is their political party -- the Democrats. A party with an unbelievably vivid history of the most brutal racism imaginable and its obsession to one degree or another with race. An obsession they have, with devastating consequence, practiced from no less a place than the Supreme Court of the United States. Judge Sotomayor, she who believes a "wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male" is only the latest in this line. Racism, as I also learned long ago, is not only blind to geography, it can be found festering among all races and both genders as well.

Do I feel I am an "idiot" as you say of those who believe Sotomayor should be vigorously opposed based on her racial sentiments? Sorry, Peggy, I just can't agree. I am absolutely agog at those who speak of moderation on this subject, who speak of tone. Tone? Tone?!!!! This judge has expressed her views in such a way as to make it crystal clear she is the lineal descendant of those who have acted on the beliefs behind one of the worst traits in American life -- racism. A trait that glistens from the breast of identity politics with a scarlet "R." Racism has more than had its day on the Supreme Court, and from Dred Scott to Plessy --to Korematsu the results have been absolutely little short of traumatic for the country. It should never, ever see the light of day on a federal bench -- or any judicial bench -- again. Much less the bench that sits the Supreme Court of the United States.

The fact Judge Sotomayor is a woman and a Latina is irrelevant. If we are truly supposed to have colorblindness as our goal, as then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy once approvingly cited Justice John Marshall Harlan, then it should not matter if all nine justices are Hispanic women, black men, Catholics or members of the Chevy Chase Country Club. (Although, typically, when Democrats had the chance to put Bush nominee Miguel Estrada on the bench, their since-leaked memos show they decided to keep him off the D.C. Appeals Court specifically because he was -- in their words -- "Latino" and "dangerous." No racism there.) The question in these situations should always be: "What's in the nominee's head?" Will she or he see defendants standing in front of them as Americans seeking justice through the colorblind interpretation of the Constitution? Or will they see them, as Sotomayor clearly has already done with her curt dismissal of the New Haven firefighters case, through the eyes of racial beliefs?

Doris Kearns Goodwin notes in her book Team of Rivals that Abraham Lincoln hoped to "'penetrate the human soul' until…'all this quibbling about this man and the other man -- this race and that race and the other race being inferior'" was discarded. President Kennedy said in his speech to the nation in the summer of 1963 that "race has no place in American life or law."

Both Lincoln and Kennedy were right, Peggy, and I know you agree with that. But in all honesty? I do not believe Judge Sotomayor believes these things at all. And if I am an "idiot" for saying so, well, then my Dad was an idiot when he stood up for that waitress all those years ago. In truth, in standing up with a handful of others I feel exactly the same way I did as a teenager when sitting down next to a scared black girl meant standing up for the right thing. I couldn't care less about "exciting the base." And if "the base" or "the moderates" have trouble finding their voice about a fundamental moral principle, we are in worse shape than I thought.

There are surely other distinguished women and Hispanic jurists without a trace of this problem who could serve on the Supreme Court. Judge Sotomayor has a great personal story. Like my old classmates I'm sure she has many wonderful attributes. I wish her no personal ill. But for whatever reason -- ethnic hubris? left-wing politics? -- she has tangled herself up in the absolute worst idea American life and law has to offer. She should never come within a country mile of being given the power to effect that very old, thoroughly discredited and very divisive ideology that has done so much terrible damage to this country. 

For that reason alone, Peggy, Judge Sotomayor's nomination should be withdrawn.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.