Matthew Yglesias on Jeff Sessions

Matt Yglesias snarks,

Watching the Senator from Alabama’s press conference, I’m comforted by the fact that whatever our ideological disagreements this is a man who’s made it in life without any preferential treatment. One hundred percent meritocracy in action. America is a beautiful place.

Presumably, no one makes it to high office without some sort of “preferential treatment.”  Still, Sessions’ biography hardly suggests that success was handed to him on a silver platter.  Here’s the Wikipedia entry on his early life:

Sessions was born in Selma, Alabama, to Abbie Powe and Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, Jr. His father owned a general store and then a farm equipment dealership. Sessions grew up in the small town of Hybart. In 1964 he became an Eagle Scout. In his adult life, he became a recipient of the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award from the Boy Scouts of America.

After attending school in nearby Camden, Sessions studied at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1969. He was active in the Young Republicans and student body president there.  Sessions received a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Alabama in 1973.

Sessions became a practicing attorney first in Russellville and then in Mobile, where he now lives. He was also an army reservist in the 1970s, achieving the rank of captain.

His parents were decidedly middle class and he went to the local public school in a not particularly affluent part of Alabama.  He was an Eagle Scout.  He went to a Methodist college down the road.  After a year teaching elementary school, he got into the state’s only public law school and did his time in the Army.

He got tabbed as an Assistant United States Attorney under President Ford just two years out of law school and then as a U.S. Attorney and later a U.S. District Court Judge by President Reagan (albeit not confirmed by the Senate to the latter).   There’s not much treatment more “preferential” than a presidential appointment. Even though I was living in Alabama during Reagan’s tenure and when Sessions was later elected Attorney General and then United States Senator, I honestly have no idea how he came to presidential attention at such a young age.   It certainly wasn’t because his daddy owned a farm equipment dealership.

Given what I know about Alabama politics circa 1975-1981, the fact that he was an active College Republican — and I’d guess a leader among that group, given his rapid success in actual politics — during a period when the Democratic primary was the election in that state was likely quite helpful.  A Republican president needing to appoint someone from Alabama had a relatively limited field in those days.  But it’s not like Sessions Peter Principled after getting his first appointment; he was quickly moved up to ever-loftier posts.

If Matt’s simply making the point that Sessions isn’t acquitting himself with particular distinction in the present debate . . . meh.  I haven’t watched any of it but it wouldn’t surprise me.  But we don’t select Senators in the same way we do brain surgeons or even Supreme Court justices; let’s just say that not all of them would have been candidates for NASA if politics had been unavailable to them as a career choice.   Beyond that, even bright Senators often come across as yahoos on television.  They’re talking to their constituents, not policy wonks.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. PD Shaw says:

    Being at the front end of political re-alignment creates its own kind of luck.

  2. Derrick says:

    Still, Sessions’ biography hardly suggests that success was handed to him on a silver platter. Here’s the Wikipedia entry on his early life:

    I think the greater point is that if he had just been born black, I’m sure that Alabama boy would have of course grown up to President. Being a white male has surely been a detriment to his career.

  3. James Joyner says:

    I think the greater point is that if he had just been born black, I’m sure that Alabama boy would have of course grown up to President. Being a white male has surely been a detriment to his career.

    Obviously, it hasn’t been. It doesn’t, however, follow that, at a somewhat later point in time, being female or black or Hispanic wasn’t an advantage in getting appointed positions in the federal government.

    Sandra Day O’Connor and Clarence Thomas were of course advantaged by being female and black, respectively, at the time Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were filling Supreme Court vacancies. That’s not to say, I hasten to add, that being female and black didn’t cause them disadvantages at earlier points in life.

    Would Sonia Sotomayor have been picked for a federal judgeship by Bush and elevated to the Circuit by Bill Clinton and then chosen for the Supreme Court by Barack Obama if she hadn’t been Hispanic? We can’t say for sure, given the lack of a counterfactual. But it’s quite reasonable to think she was advantaged in this one respect in her life by being Hispanic, as Sessions was by being Republican in 1975.

    Does having been selected partly because of race or sex render a candidate unqualified? No. But we don’t have to pretend that it’s a purely meritorious process, either.

  4. Alex Knapp says:

    Not just Thomas and O’Connor. When Scalia was confirmed, he was the first Italian-American on the Supreme Court, and this is something that was brought up quite a bit during the confirmation hearings. It’s important to remember that one of the reasons that Democrats didn’t fight Scalia as hard as they did, say, Bork is because of the importance of the Italian-American community at the time to their electoral democraphics.

  5. Eric Florack says:

    Alex;
    Similarly, the issue of Hispanic ‘firsts’ in various positions. Much, for example is being made of Obama’s nomination of Sotomayor’s being a ‘first’, but people pointing to that ‘first’ generally ignore the actions of Obama’s predecessor in appointing record numbers of Hispanics to the bench at various levels.

  6. As a former resident of Alabama, my memory of Jeff Sessions is that he was a decent man. Alabama can do a lot worse than have him as one of its senators. As a citizen of the universe, my memory of Matt Yglesias is that he is a smart, well-eductaed, disrespectful, callow young man who positively revels in his life inside the echo chamber.

  7. pylon says:

    As a former resident of Alabama, my memory of Jeff Sessions is that he was a decent man. Alabama can do a lot worse than have him as one of its senators. As a citizen of the universe, my memory of Matt Yglesias is that he is a smart, well-eductaed, disrespectful, callow young man who positively revels in his life inside the echo chamber.

    Your memory seems flawed:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2009/may/05/jeff-sessions-arlen-specter-judiciary-committee

  8. pylon says:

    Sessions’s first national exposure was, surely, mortifying for the would-be federal judge. It was 1986, and the then-39-year-old US attorney for the Southern District of Alabama was a Reagan nominee to the federal bench. Sessions had good reason to believe he’d be rubber-stamped through to a judgeship — some 200 of the Gipper’s judges had already been heavily sprinkled throughout the federal judicial system. But Sessions stopped up the works. The young lawyer became only the second man in 50 years to be rejected by the Senate judiciary committee.

    The reasons for his rejection, as I explained in this 2002 New Republic story had to do with a soupy mix of dubious and arguably racist moves, comments and motivations on the part of the Alabama native that led senator Ted Kennedy to announce it was “inconceivable … that a person of this attitude is qualified to be a US attorney, let alone a United States federal judge.”

    Later Kennedy would say the hearings created a ”clear and convincing case to gross insensitivity to the questions of race” on the part of Sessions. His Democratic colleague, senator Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio, called Sessions a man of ”marginal qualifications who lacks judicial temperament. … A nominee who is hostile, hostile to civil rights organisations and their causes.”

    The tip of the problem was a 1984 case that came to be known as the “Marion 3” — Sessions’s prosecution of three civil rights workers over what he perceived as voting fraud. As Lani Guinier lays out in her book Lift Every Voice, before 1965 there were “virtually no blacks registered to vote in the 10 western Black Belt counties of Albama”.

    But by the 1980s that had started to change. Through the massive get-out-the-vote efforts of three leaders — including a former aid to Martin Luther King — black voter turnout began to creep toward 80%, and a handful of black legislators were elected. That’s where Sessions stepped in, charging three voting rights organisers with voter fraud. All three were quickly acquitted. Sessions’s choice to focus on their efforts looked a lot less like good governance and a lot more like voter intimidation.

    Hebert testified that the young lawyer tended to “pop off” on such topics regularly, noting that Sessions had called a white civil rights lawyer a “disgrace to his race” for litigating voting rights cases.

    ”Mr Sessions … stated that he believed the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Operation PUSH and the National Council of Churches were all un-American organisations teaching anti-American values,” Figures testified. ”The statement clearly was not intended as a joke.” Figures also said he was present when Sessions said he believed the Ku Klux Klan was OK until he learned its members smoked marijuana — a statement Sessions has said was clearly made in jest. ”I certainly took it as a serious statement,” Figures said.

  9. lunacy says:

    I’ve read the above mentioned article regarding Sessions. And the previous one from 2002.

    I find them suspect. I seriously doubt Sessions is a racist. I doubt he said anything as racist as the article claims.

    Sessions just defeated Vivian Figures in the senatorial race.

    Both Jeff and Vivian are both fine people. Jeff is a Republican. Vivian is a Democrat. As are probably ALL the Figures in Alabama. I’m not sure what relationship Vivian is to Thomas Figures (mentioned in the article). Daughter in Law. Niece in Law. Vivian is holding a seat vacated by her husband, atty Michael Figures, when he passed unexpectedly of an aneurysm. He was famed for prosecuting the men who lynch Michael Donald in the 80s.

    Since Mrs. Figures is local to me, and my work position exposes me to much political haymaking in these parts, if there were any validity to the claims in Ms. Wildeman’s article, I’m sure we all would have heard about it leading up to her possible victory over Sessions. The atmosphere was ready for her to win. There is no doubt that this past Nov 4 saw more black Alabamans at the polls than ever in the history of voting.

    That Mr. Sessions voted against various affirmative action legislation and investigated voter fraud, thereby irritating the NAACP, this isn’t a flaw. It’s a feature. He is, as I stated above, a Republican. I don’t always vote R but I do for Jeff. He’s stand up and a straight shooter. He doesn’t seem interested in squandering state resources.

    SO…if you have another source for the story I’d be glad to see it, but one author, quoting herself, well…I find it suspect.

    Meanwhile, please don’t spread rumors. It’s ugly.

  10. Of course, he’s a racist, but I guess that’s a given seeing as how he’s a southern Republican. Thanks for clearing that up for us.

  11. Tlaloc says:

    I wonder how long Sessions has…

    By that I mean there’s been a steady ratchet effect on the right (what others have called the death spiral) that’s been pushing the right grassroots *way* right. Today you openly hear people like Cornyn and Newt called squishs and moderates on places like redstate that feted them just 6 months ago.

    Which wouldn’t matter except these people exert considerable influence in primaries where they can and do try to kneecap their apostates even if it results in their losing the seat.

    So far Sessions remains sufficiently ideologically pure but I have to imagine sooner or later he’ll do something to earn a black mark.

  12. Tlaloc says:

    Of course, he’s a racist, but I guess that’s a given seeing as how he’s a southern Republican. Thanks for clearing that up for us.

    Is it our fault the GOP decided the way to win elections was to draw in racist ex-dems? I mean if republicans really wanted not to be associated with racists they could take the self evident step of not associating with racists. Starting with Tancredo would be wise.

  13. Is it our fault the GOP decided the way to win elections was to draw in racist ex-dems?

    Senator Byrd says hello.

  14. Tlaloc says:

    Senator Byrd says hello.

    I’ll shed no tears when Byrd kicks the bucket but at least the man publicly disavowed and apologized for his racist past.

    How many on your side have done the same? Of course it might help if they stopped the barrage of racism first (Hi, Buchanon!).

  15. pylon says:

    I doubt he said anything as racist as the article claims.

    He didn’t deny it.

    He made the statements in front of witnesses.

    It’s not reported in only those articles.

    Your doubt is very charitable, but not founded on much.

  16. pylon says:

    SO…if you have another source for the story I’d be glad to see it, but one author, quoting herself, well…I find it suspect.

    Meanwhile, please don’t spread rumors. It’s ugly.

    glad to oblige:

    http://www.cqpress.com/ls/pia/pdfs/107/aljr-2000.pdf

    http://www.bostonherald.com/news/us_politics/view/2009_05_05_GOP_s_Sen__Jeff_Sessions_leads_court_nomination_fight/srvc=home&position=recent

    http://legaltimes.typepad.com/blt/2009/05/spurned-nominee-could-lead-gop-on-senate-judiciary.html

  17. lunacy says:

    Gee, all three articles go back to the exact same quotes, provided by an Alabama Democrat, of which Sessions says they were taken out of context.

    Again, if there were any validity to the claim, Ms. Figures would surely have made much hay of it.

    Mobile is nearly about 40/60 black/white. She would have gained much sympathy here if she could honestly claim Jeff was racist.

    She did not.

    The articles state, “Sessions said the comments were taken out of context or fabricated. He and his supporters argued that Democrats were using the allegations to reject Sessions over honest ideological differences.”

    I believe this to be true.

    But thanks for the redundancy. Nothing like circular research. When my student’s used to do it I’d send them back to the library.

  18. pylon says:

    Ummm – 3 sources looking at the same confirmation hearings isn’t circular. It’s all three corroborating what was said.

    You seem to his accusers were under oath.

    He didn’t say “disgrace to his race” was taken out of context – just the KKK “joke”, which witnesses said wasn’t the case.

    He was heavily involved in vote suppression efforts with trumped up charges that were dismissed in short order when they finally got to trial. But feel free to explain that away.

    BTW, when I was a teacher, I’d make people redo misuse of plurals v. possessives.