In his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln ended with these words: “I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely as they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
The political civility of the 16th president, a member of the Republican Party, is virtually nonexistent today in Washington. Recently, the late Coretta Scott King made news when Sen. Elizabeth Warren was prevented from reading her 1986 letter opposing the nomination of Attorney General Jeff Sessions to the federal bench. In the middle of Senate debate on his nomination to lead the Department of Justice, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell used a rarely invoked procedural maneuver to silence Warren, allegedly concerned that she was impugning the character of a colleague.
How insulting was this reprimand to the widow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a champion of equality for all in her own right? How sexist was that, not to only his colleague from Massachusetts, but women across the country?
In addition, it was, once again, a blatant display of political hypocrisy by McConnell. In July 2015, then-presidential candidate and Sen. Ted Cruz crossed the line of Senate decorum when he accused the majority leader of lying to his colleagues. Said Cruz, “What we just saw today was an absolute demonstration that not only what he told every Republican senator, but what he told the press over and over and over again, was a simple lie.”
McConnell didn’t publicly share any concerns about congressional decorum then, nor did he in 2009 when Rep. Joe Wilson shouted, “You lie” as former President Obama addressed a joint session of Congress.
So why wasn’t Cruz reprimanded? Because it was, I suspect, a calculated political decision by the majority leader, in coordination with the White House, and an eye to the 2018 midterm elections as well as 2020. The GOP has replaced Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi with Warren as the primary face of opposition for the Democratic Party.
In a daily press briefing, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said, “I can only hope that if Coretta Scott King was still with us, she’d support Jeff Sessions.” However, that statement was nothing more than wishful thinking on his part and supporters of his nomination.
Jeff Sessions is now the U.S. attorney general. Yet, the words of Mrs. King which so “offended” McConnell are just as relevant today as they were in 1986 when Sen. Strom Thurmond, Chairman of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, refused to enter Mrs. King’s letter into the official record.
Mrs. King wrote: “My professional and personal roots in Alabama are deep and lasting. Anyone who has used the power of his office as United States Attorney General to intimidate and chill the free exercise of the ballot of citizens should not be elevated to our courts. Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten black voters. For this reprehensible conduct, he should not be awarded with a federal judgeship.”
The favorable vote of the Senate for Mr. Sessions to be the nation’s chief law enforcement officer is an affront and demeans the legacy of Dr. King. It is equally offensive to the legacy and sacrifices of Mrs. King, Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hammer, Adam Clayton Powell, Bernice R. Sims, Medgar Evers, Dorothy Height, Andrew Young, Viola Liuzzo, Rep. John Lewis and countless other heroes and sheroes, known and unknown, of the civil rights movement.
Today, one who has never been a friend of African-Americans is responsible for protecting the Voting Rights Act, which was dramatically weakened by the Supreme Court in 2013. We must now look to Attorney General Sessions to monitor and address North Carolina and other states now actively engaged in voter disenfranchisement efforts that benefit the GOP at the expense of minorities.
I can only hope that, moving forward, the attorney general’s decisions on civil rights will be guided with an ear and vision, as President Lincoln said, to “the better angels of our nature.” Unfortunately his public record does not suggest that this will be the case.
Cooper is president of Cooper Strategic Affairs, Inc.