Why Pickering Is in a Pickle

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Mr. Barnhill is an independent historian. He lives in Oklahoma.

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Charles Pickering apparently wants to be a justice of the Fifth U.S. Circuit, and he probably will be when the dust settles. His nomination has provoked debate about his fitness, but the debate rests on politics and, thus, not entirely on fitness to serve.

Mr. Pickering, the evidence shows, at one point in the 1970s while a state legislator contacted the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, an unsavory arm of the Mississippi state government, an anti-civil rights police agency that tracked "subversives" with an excess of zeal. I'd guarantee that if he'd been a politician in the 1950s he would have indicated opposition to desegregation, not exactly a bold stand in those times. Then in 1990 he lied about it. He wouldn't have been found out if the records of the commission hadn't been opened in 1998.

Pickering really should have said he was sorry. He could have added that his visit to the commission was just a matter of constituent service. That might well be true. If not, who could prove otherwise? Or he could have seen the light. George Wallace did it. Strom Thurmond did it. Brooks Hays of Arkansas made spent much of his life apologizing for signing the Southern Manifesto along with just about every other Southern Congressman who wanted to keep his job in the fallout of Brown v. Topeka.

Politicians make mistakes. The bulk of their job is pandering to public opinion. It used to be fashionable in the South for politicians to "play the race card." Scratch a Southern politician in the last century and you'd almost always find a public racist. It was good politics. But the fashion's changed. Those days are long past. But changing fashion has not brought liberalism to all of the South.

Pickering's real sin is that in 1976 he was about the first to write anti-abortion planks into the Republican platform. And he wants a Constitutional amendment to ban abortion. And he is not very accepting of alternative lifestyles. He is not all that far removed from the Southern moderate style of the 1950s. He may not be a bigot when it comes to race, regardless of his somewhat tenuous tie to the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, but he is clearly not a flaming liberal, and he has less than full devotion to Roe v Wade. That's the history that should be jumping up and biting Judge Pickering.

But it's hard. He's aroused the pro-choice crowd. The National Abortion Federation, the National Organization for Women, and other backers of Roe v Wade are afraid. But progressives have long scorned conservatives who made abortion right their litmus test. Now they're stuck doing the same thing. So they have to broaden the attack, find that race card. It's okay; it's diversionary; it's politics. And in politics guilt by association is as good as any other form of guilt. Pickering is not everybody's hero. But don't try to make the charges credible by distorting history. If the political charges are weak, bad history won't make them any stronger.

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Derek Catsam - 1/24/2003

Ahh yes, the Heuislerian namecalling. "Righteous." Interesting that you miss, apparently, the whole point of the articvle, which is that we should not worry about whether Pickering was a racist, but rather whether he explicitly ignored the law. Although we might well be talking about different articles -- some of the evidence in the most recent TRB, by Peter Beinart, does not focus on racism. In any case, each time I try to be reasonable, you start your namecalling again. I think I'll just back out and allow your omniscience to carry the day.

Bill Heuisler - 1/23/2003

Yes, I'm aware of the TNR article. Maybe one problem you're having with this issue (and many others) is that your news sources are sloppy and badly biased.
The "juvenile" TNR mentioned had been convicted a year or so prior to the cross burning. He had fired a shot that passed through the house of the same interracial couple who were the recent victims of the cross burning. He apparently got probation and time served. Pickering should have been angry.
You should be angry, but you're too busy being righteous.

Derek, if you're going to question someone, find out why the prosecutor deigned to plea-bargain with the nasty little racist.
If you're going to question someone, ask why TNR decided to leave out this important detail in their editorial cheap-shot. Face it, you need better info sources.
Next time call me first...no charge.
Bill Heuisler

Derek Catsam - 1/23/2003

See the editorial on Pickering in this week's New Republic -- interesting stuff independent of race on the exact case you talk about and why it should hurt his cause.
I never said that all Mississippians of any age or era were racist. And you know I didn't. read more closely or stop misrepresenting me.
I'd say we've reached endgame on this one. You think he should be confirmed, I think he should not. Doesn't look like either of us is yielding much ground.

Bill Heuisler - 1/22/2003

First, congratulations. You'll be a fine teacher/mentor.
Second and third, Judge Pickering was a State Legislator when he is purported to have contacted the Sovereignty Commission - an incidental duty of his office. Did he tell that commission to act unlawfully? Testimony? Tapes? Witness quotes? Hearsay? Where's the proof you insist on in other matters?

Judge Pickering asked for a reduction of sentence from seven years to two-plus on a convicted cross-burner when he found the other two involved had received lighter sentences. Further, he found the prosecutor had made a plea-deal with one of the two in spite of the fact he was the ringleader and had been convicted of a previous assault on the same interracial couple.
A reasonable action by anyone's standard of justice.
Lastly, to apply the term, racist, to all Mississippians of a certain class and period is beneath you. Similar defamation would be decried by you if such geographic induction were applied by others to circumstances involving political coloration or Civil or Criminal guilt, would they not?
Enough. Pickering will be affirmed and deserves to be.
Bill Heuisler

Derek Catsam - 1/22/2003

Here's what I actually wrote:

"Maybe you can find a way to say that Mississippi in the 1950s and 1960s was not segregationist. Be my guest, but you'd be wrong, and I'd question your motives to boot, Yup -- I'd think you were racist. It may be a too commonly applied label, but there are ample times when it fits."

It was an if-then proposition. If you believe x, then you are y. That is the oppposite of an ad hominem attack because it is predicated on your thoughts and beliefs and was not simply an "attack against the person." Funny how you, one of the most sarcastic and condescending people on these boards, suddenly have your thin skin pierced so easily. Some might call you a bully. Not me though -- that would be an ad hominem attack.

But nice to see how you are the judge of who deserves and does not deserve a doctorate. I'll let the experts in my areas be the judges, as well as my students and colleagues (You'll be even more stunned to know that I already am at a tenure track position, Bill.)

As for why there are qualms about Pickering, it's a matter of common record -- one can dispute it or not, but I did not realize that these facts are not clear -- the (admittedly peripheral) association with the Citizens' Councils and less-peripheral connections to the State Sovereignty Commission, a couple of fairly serious judicial missteps on the issiue of race. Again -- reasonable people can disagree about this and not be racist, but I do question the timing and motives of the RE-nomination of Pickering.

Bill Heuisler - 1/22/2003

The Pickering renomination is "unseemly"? How trite, how elitist.
In other words, you can't come up with any real reasons why the Judge is unfit to be confirmed - except that I'm a racist. Can't answer a question, attack the questioner. And you're going for a Doctorate? Too bad. Ad hominum attacks merely expose a vacuum.
Bill Heuisler

Derek Catsam - 1/22/2003

Sorry about that -- what I meant to write is that since neither Martin Luther King Jr. nor Morris Dees was a Mississippian, I don't get your point. Plus certainly neither rose in the political structure of Mississippi in the segregationist era. So yes -- to be successful in Mississippi politics in the Jim Crow era, one virtually had to be a segregationist, certainly so after Brown came down in 1954.

Derek Catsam - 1/22/2003

Bill --
Where to start, where to start. First off, that segregationism was racist is hardly something i shouild have to defend. Nonetheless, southern politicians in the Jim Crow era defined themselves as segregationist. So to say that Mississippi in the 1950s was segregationist is an historical truism. I do my work on the segregationist South, so I damned well know what this historical antecedents here are.
As for "l-affaire Lott" I was referring to the juxtaposition between Lott's resignation and Pickering's re-nomination -- it is an unseemly overlap in my mind, and obviously in many others.
The point is that you now are clarifying what you meant vis-a-via my post, whereas before you wrote that my posts said things they clearly did not say. Inability to read, willful obfuscation -- neither is especially tasteful. Neither adds to the discussion. Maybe you can find a way to say that Mississippi in the 1950s and 1960s was not segregationist. Be my guest, but you'd be wrong, and I'd question your motives to boot, Yup -- I'd think you were racist. It may be a too commonly applied label, but there are ample times when it fits.

Bill Heuisler - 1/22/2003

Ms. Brabant,
You ask a question:
"Why would W even re-nominate Pickering to open this all up again?"
Then you deliver judgement before recieving an answer:
"...I hate the message of the Repubs."

Exactly what message inspires your hatred? Do you even know?
In another post you claim they are keeping you afraid and stupid.
Examine your conscience, you haven't the slightest idea what Judge Pickering has done that renders him unfit. You haven't the slightest idea of the message Clarence Thomas', Condi Rice's and Colin Powell's Republican Party offers you.

Each time Democrats hold the US Senate they elect Robert Byrd President Pro Tem of the Senate - third or fourth in line of succession for the Presidency. He is an unrepentant, N-word using, segregationist who held high office in the Ku Klux Klan.
Did you know? Does it matter? Why Not?
Fear and ignorance are obviously self-inflicted in this case.
Bill Heuisler

Catherine Brabant - 1/22/2003

Why would W even re-nominate Pickering to open this all up again? What is wrong with the Repub Party? Don't they realize that by constantly appealing to whites that they will be a minority party before very long? To set things straight, I am a white woman, but I hate the message of the Repubs.

Catherine Brabant - 1/22/2003

Politics is mean and dirty and it is played by both parties. Pickering is just part of the game.

I hope the American people wake up before the Repubs take away all out rights! Keep us dumb and scared while we (Repubs) do want we want.

Bill Heuisler - 1/21/2003

Thank you for your concern about my reading capacity. Your response shows me you understand second and even third-tier thinking. But maybe not. Allow me to introduce you to some deductive reasoning most readers of HNN practice regularly.

1) "Segregationist" equals racist in most discussions.
2) "L'affair Lott" was about his racist remark.
3) You repeated the term "segregationist" when describing the Mississippi politics that supposedly defined each man.
4) "Vita" means Judge Pickering's "objectionable" career.

So, having nothing specific to criticize about Judge Pickering,
you used guilt by association and indulged in the oblique smear so typical of the Left. When called on it, you now fall back on phony pedantry. If Judge Pickering is not a racist he should be confirmed. If there are other disqualifications, have the stones to detail them. You defended the article. You know what you meant; we all know what you meant.
Bill Heuisler

Derek Catsam - 1/21/2003

Bill -- how about reading my posts before attacking them. Where Did I say that trent Lott is racist (I will say it now, and I will refer you to the recent New Republic TRB that seals it for me) and where did I say that Mississippi is racist? I did not consign him to any hell based on where he was born. I did consign him to a certain fate because of some of his associations and how those associationa now look in light if recent events. I hope you read history better and more closely than you read these posts.

Derek Catsam - 1/21/2003

Er, except that M

Orson Olson - 1/20/2003

derek catsam writes: "there was no other way to rise to prominence in Mississippi politics in the posrt-Brown period."

Hmm. So Morris Dees didn't rise to promininace in the post-Brown South? Did MLK?

No. The problem is just that Pickering disagrees with you!
(Heck--he disagrees with me, too.) Why not just say it and be done with it!

Or do you really mean that such disagreement is un-American?


Bill Heuisler - 1/19/2003

Being snide is not something one can pick up and discard at will.
Rather the snide tirade is a product of its environment, like a sneeze greeting pepper.
Let's examine your post: Lott is racist. Mississippi is racist. Pickering isn't really racist, but he comes from Mississippi and his confirmation hearing falls within a year of Lott's apostasy.
Your casual consignment of Judge Pickering to the awful Hell of incorrectitude due to his place of birth could be true of any Southerner - or anyone born in pre-1985 Southern Africa for that matter - and is something you might want to reconsider before my voice turns nasal, my prose edges into satire and I bring up the Army-McCarthy hearings.
Bill Heuisler

derek catsam - 1/19/2003

Bill --
It does not take a psychic to divine that Pickering would have been a segregationists had he risen to prominence in the 1950s because there was no other way to rise to prominence in Mississippi politics in the posrt-Brown period. I don't think Pickering should be confirmed but i also think that he is not the hard-core segregationist that some would depict him to be (and before you on on one of your snide tirades as you did to the piece in question, I do know someone who knows Pickering rather well and has assured me that the judge is not who hew has been depicted as being). Nonetheless, after l'affaire Lott it seems to me unseemly to RE-nominate someone with Pickering's divisive vita.

Bill Heuisler - 1/13/2003

It's obvious Mr. Barnhill knows Judge Pickering very very well. He reads the Judge's mind. "I'd guarantee that if he'd been a politician in the 1950s he would have indicated opposition to desegregation, not exactly a bold stand in those times."
"...(Pickering) is not very accepting of alternative lifestyles"
Astounding intuitive discernment!
Barnhill also knows the Judge is a closet segregationist because he once "contacted" a suspect State Agency thirty years ago when he was a State Legislator charged with monitoring State Agencies.
Another inductive miracle of creative reasoning.
But in spite of these nearly supernatural manifestations, this piece is nothing more than a cheap hatchet-job unworthy of HNN.
Bill Heuisler