NY Times Front Page Spreads Fears Jeff Sessions Would Wreck Civil Rights: 'Throwback to a Bygone South'

January 9th, 2017 6:25 PM

Would an Attorney General Jeff Sessions wreck civil rights? Several newspapers seem to think so, including Monday’s New York Times, which tried to poison the well against him as his confirmation looms.

The long front-page profile of Sen. Sessions of Alabama, Donald Trump’s pick for attorney general, hid its hostility and labeling slant under the benign headline, “Bonding by Bucking the Establishment.

The Times editors just couldn’t resist a photo taking up the top page of the print edition showing Sessions greeting the president in Mobile, Al., surrounded by three Azalea Trail Maids in their stereortpically Deep South antebellum hoop skirts.

Sharon Lafraniere and Matt Apuzzo act dismayed at Sessions’ strong conservatism.

Mr. Sessions is in many ways Mr. Trump’s antithesis: reedy-voiced, diminutive and mild-mannered, a devout Methodist and an Eagle Scout who will soon celebrate a golden wedding anniversary with his college sweetheart. His father ran a country store in the Deep South. And he is widely regarded as rigidly honest and inflexible on issues he considers matters of principle. Mr. Trump has meandered across the political spectrum; Mr. Sessions has been a deeply conservative Republican his entire life.

But besides their age -- both are 70 -- Mr. Sessions shared one trait with Mr. Trump: He was an outsider, dismissed by much of the Republican Party as a fringe player on all but his signature issue, immigration. The two men unexpectedly bonded over their willingness to buck the establishment and the unlikely hope that lower-middle- and working-class voters would carry a billionaire to the White House.

For Mr. Sessions, that alliance has paid off in a fashion that few ever imagined. Rejected for a federal judgeship, passed over for a crucial Senate committee chairmanship and long considered too far right to attain a cabinet post, he has defied the odds.

Within days, he could be confirmed as attorney general of the United States.

Some cabinet nominees arrive at confirmation hearings with records that require considerable guesswork. Not Mr. Sessions. His rock-ribbed conservatism was forged in the deep poverty and isolation of rural Alabama, sharpened during 16 years as a federal prosecutor and state attorney general and polished as a senator. After one of the most liberal periods in Justice Department history, Mr. Sessions is expected to execute an about-face on the Obama administration’s policies of immigration, criminal justice and -- many critics fear -- civil rights.

After listing Sessions' deplorable positions on immigration and gay marriage and his skepticism toward the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division...

Mr. Sessions is not a uniquely conservative pick; John Ashcroft, attorney general under President George W. Bush, held similarly strident views. But Mr. Ashcroft was a party stalwart whom any number of Republican presidents might have nominated. Mr. Sessions offers an uncompromising brand of conservatism that combines Christian and small-government values with strains of populism and a willingness to say the unpopular, or even offensive. He speaks to a disenchanted electorate that includes the white, nationalistic fringes of his party. In short, he is a uniquely Trump nominee to lead the Justice Department.

To many Trump supporters, he is a rare public servant with the backbone to enforce the nation’s laws strictly, regardless of political consequences. “He has been the leader of this populist revolt against the political elite,” Stephen K. Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News Network who will be a senior White House adviser, said in February.

Critics see Mr. Sessions as a throwback to a bygone South. “His whole life, he has been on the wrong side of every issue,” said Wayne Flynt, a politically progressive Alabama history professor who has followed his career for decades. On questions about voting, gays and immigration, he said, “he has argued to narrow democracy, not broaden it.”

And isn’t this a strange way to characterize conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh?

Republican purists like the radio host Rush Limbaugh said Senate power brokers were punishing a courageous truthsayer. “That alone tells you where the Republican leadership mind-set is on this,” Mr. Limbaugh said on his program in 2014. “They want to take out the one primary voice of opposition.”

The reporters discussed Sessions’ racial history, indistinguishable from that of any white man born in the Deep South in the 1940s, in skeptical terms.

As Mr. Sessions attended his church youth group and worked toward the rank of Eagle Scout in the early 1960s, Alabama was emerging as ground zero of the civil rights movement, the backdrop for violence and bravery since immortalized in museums. But as he has himself suggested, the era’s historic tumult largely escaped him.

Segregation permeated the rural Alabama of his youth. As late as 1985, his father told a local paper that he believed in it, although he stressed he was not speaking for his son. Wilcox County High School, where Jeff Sessions was voted senior class president in 1964, was an all-white institution. African-Americans, the majority of county residents, were largely illiterate, living in unpainted wooden shacks insulated with newspapers, their children shunted to squalid schools with no instructional materials.

After quoting Sessions saying that the Justice Department “goes beyond fair and balanced treatment, but has an agenda,” the Times went into hysterical mode with guilt by association, in much the same way it went after Sen. John Ashcroft, President George W. Bush’s attorney general.

Critics fear such comments presage a rollback in civil rights enforcement. “Jeff Sessions is emblematic of too many white Southerners who learned very little from the civil rights movement, except how to be more creative in carrying out an anti-civil-rights agenda,” said Allen Tullos, a history professor at Emory University.


Mr. Sessions’s views have made him a target of critics who say he works too closely with people who have racist, xenophobic views. Several of the groups he has worked alongside were founded or nurtured by the activist John Tanton, who has described the anti-immigration fight in racial terms. “For European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority,” Mr. Tanton once warned a friend.