Elizabeth Warren: A Great Way To Get Ready For Lent
By Matt McDonald | February 10, 2017, 8:17 EDT
If you’ve done something really bad recently and you’re looking for penance to atone, try watching Elizabeth Warren’s speech about Jeff Sessions on the floor of the United States Senate.
But don’t stop after 50 minutes and 24 seconds on YouTube. Once she gets shot down, go over to her Facebook page and watch the rest of the speech, too. It’s only 15 ½ minutes over there, and your soul will surely feel the burn.
You’ll find long, repetitive quotations from an outrageous letter signed by Coretta Scott King in 1986, when Sessions was trying to make the leap from U.S. Attorney in Alabama to federal judge. (More on that later.)
You’ll find long quotations from a Daily Beast article that tries to make the case that Sessions was partly behind President Donald Trump’s temporary immigration ban.
But my own favorite part is this:
“While serving as Alabama’s attorney general he reportedly made numerous racist comments, including saying he thought the KKK was O.K. until he learned that they smoked weed.”
This is obviously a joke. It has the structure and cadence of a joke, and a punch line. You don’t have to like the joke to get that it is a joke.
But someone as dull and humorless as Senator Warren may well be joke-proof.
(Wonder if Al Franken has ever tried to tell Elizabeth Warren a joke? Bet he didn’t try it a second time.)
I never thought I’d say this, but …
Ted Kennedy, where are you when we need you?
Sure, he did and said terrible things. He stood for terrible things.
But the man had a sense of humor, and he could give a speech.
The reason anyone paid attention to Warren’s gloomy screed is that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell decided to shut her down for numerous violations of Senate rules.
You don’t have to be a parliamentarian to understand where Warren went afoul. News reports talked about an “arcane” Senate rule, but actually it’s vanilla.
Anyone who is familiar with Mr. Smith Goes To Washington knows what it’s about. At one point Jefferson Smith (who happens to have the same first name as Jefferson Sessions) is recounting a meeting where he was offered a corrupt bargain, and he refers to members of Congress who were in the room. Another senator rises to object, but Smith (played by Jimmy Stewart) points out that he never mentioned any of the names of the members of Congress who were in the room. Because if he had, he would have violated the rule that says you can’t cast aspersions on a sitting member of the United States Senate.
Here’s what Rule XIX says in Section 2:
“No Senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.”
By that standard, Warren should have been shut down 6 minutes into her speech, not 44 minutes later.
The rule is admittedly odd. It dates from a time when the United States Senate was a more dangerous place. In 1902 two senators got into a physical fight on the floor. Back before the Civil War Charles Sumner got beaten almost to death with a cane by a member of the House of Representatives.
In retrospect McConnell probably wishes he just let Warren go on, since her speech would have sunk unmarked into the abyss of history.
But since we’re all paying attention to the speech now, let’s note some of the details.
Much of the speech is about a prosecution of black civil-rights activists Sessions presided over in 1985 when he was a U.S. Attorney in Alabama.
If you add the time Warren spoke on the floor of the Senate and the time she spent speaking on Facebook, it’s more than an hour. Never did she bother to describe the details of the incident she used to try to show that Sessions should be disqualified.
She and other Democrats have been content to let casual listeners conclude that Sessions tried to stop blacks from voting, with a likely understanding that anti-black whites would benefit.
In fact, the details are messier, which may explain why the Democrats don’t get into them.
Perry County is about 69 percent black. In the mid-1980s there were two political groups. One consisted of black liberals. Another was a more conservative coalition of whites and blacks. The coalition of whites and blacks complained that the black liberals were collecting absentee ballots from black voters and then altering them before mailing them.
Sessions heard complaints from the conservative coalition and from the local district attorney. But Sessions initially did nothing about it, figuring the practices would stop.
Then the next election cycle he got another round of complaints, so he had F.B.I. agents investigate. They found evidence that dozens of absentee ballots collected by political operatives had been altered by those operatives. That’s when he prosecuted.
Sessions lost the case. The accused were acquitted. Sessions later said his office was outgunned, because the NAACP had 10 lawyers as opposed to the two lawyers from the U.S. Attorney.
You can argue about Sessions’s judgment. But is this case proof of racism?
Of course not.
Yet here’s the money quote from Coretta Scott King’s letter in 1986 opposing Sessions’s nomination for a federal judgeship:
“The irony of Mr. Sessions’s nomination is that, if confirmed, he will be given a life tenure for doing with a federal prosecution what the local sheriffs accomplished twenty years ago with clubs and cattle prods.”
As jaw-dropping as this absurd statement is, at least Mrs. King had a stake in this case, since she knew the defendants. She can be judged as trying to defend the honor of her friends.
But Sessions has never been accused of trying to unjustly prosecute any Cherokee Indians.
Senator Warren, what’s your excuse?