I was all set to turn off 60 Minutes last night after its first segment -- a too-brief and entirely anticlimactic interview with Condoleezza Rice -- but if I had, I would have missed a small miracle. Judge Charles Pickering finally got the public hearing he deserved, and the competence, courage, and decency of the man shined through.
Pickering was nominated by President Bush to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2001, but his appointment was blocked by Senate Democrats through 2003. Finally in January of this year, Bush made a recess appointment for Pickering. But when that temporary appointment expires next year, Pickering will have to return to the Senate floor that was the scene of such vile character assassination from Senators Charles Schumer, John Edwards, and others.
Pickering had a long and distinguished record in Mississippi of supporting civil rights. In the 1960s, he testified against the Ku Klux Klan at significant risk to himself and his family. He sent his children to integrated schools when all-white private school options were available. He successfully defended a young black man wrongfully accused of a crime against a white girl. And he was widely respected by the black citizens of Mississippi, including those who knew him professionally.
But the Democrats seized on a decision he made in a 1994 cross-burning case -- in which he advocated a reduced sentence for one of the defendants - to argue that he was "racially insensitive." As with so many of such charges, the Democrats were employing half-truths devoid of context. Pickering had good reason to argue for the reduced sentence, as explained here. (A followup is here).
All of this the 60 Minutes segment brought out. Unlike John Edwards -- who ingeniously twisted subtle legal distinctions into seemingly incriminating admissions from Pickering in the Senate confirmation hearings -- Mike Wallace let the man talk. At times, Wallace almost seemed indignant himself at the treatment the judge had received. Best of all, the segment allowed some of Pickering's detractors, like Senator Schumer and Clarence McGee, the head of a Mississippi NAACP office, to say their piece. In doing so, the program revealed how spurious or just plain ignorant the criticisms of Pickering are.
Schumer was on twice. In his first appearance, he spit out the condemnation he makes so comfortably from his moral Olympus in the northeastern United States: "The bottom line is if Judge Pickering were so sensitive to the long and sad racial history in Mississippi, he would never have done what he did with the case of cross burning." Later in the segment, he excoriated Pickering for going against the federal sentencing guidelines and advocating a reduced prison term: "And Judge Pickering took it on himself, the one time he had a crusade, to help a man who burnt a cross."
That was Pickering's "one crusade," according to Schumer. Apparently sending a notorious KKK thug to prison was something less. I do marvel at the equanimity and grace so many white Southerners are able to maintain even after 40 years of lecturing from New Yorkers like Charles Schumer.
THE HIGH POINT OF the segment came near the end, when black citizens from Laurel, Mississippi, spoke out on Pickering's behalf. One black attorney, a man named Charles Lawrence, said of Pickering: "I trust him because I've been in front of him. I've had cases in front of him. And that's not to say I've always won. I haven't always won. But he, he has an understanding of the law and he applies it fairly across the board." Another black attorney, Deborah Gambrell, said: "This man makes for a level playing field," she said, "and that's the thing that I admire about him."
And then 60 Minutes brought on McGee, head of the NAACP office in Hattiesburg, to debate with the wonderful Charles Evers, brother of Civil Rights era martyr Medgar Evers. Someone at the NAACP should have known better than to tangle with Evers in any case. But if they were going to do so, shouldn't they have sent a representative who knew something about Charles Pickering? This priceless exchange must be quoted in full:
Evers: You know, maybe you don't know, you know that Charles Pickering is a man helped us to break the Ku Klux Klan. Did you know that?
McGee: I heard that statement made.
Evers: I mean, I know that. Do you know that?
McGee: I don't know that.
Evers: I know that. Do you know about the young black man that was accused of robbing the young white woman. You know about that?
Evers: So Charles Pickering took the case. Came to trial and won the case and the young man became free.
McGee: I don't know about that.
Evers: But did you also know that Charles Pickering is the man who helped integrate his churches. You know about that?
Evers: Well, you don't know a thing about Charles Pickering.
All McGee could come up with was the cross-burning case. Fumbling, ill-prepared and clearly uncomfortable, he managed: "I would say he overstepped his bounds. He might be somewhat intimidating. These kinds of things disturb me."
Nobody who watched 60 Minutes last night would find anything remotely "intimidating" about Charles Pickering. But there are many -- including people in NAACP leadership positions whom, one would think, would make sure they knew the record on such matters -- who don't know a thing about the man.
Thanks to 60 Minutes, though, their numbers are smaller this morning. Better late than never; and for Judge Pickering, maybe not too late, after all.
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