Jon Lender reported in the Hartford Courant that “State Appellate Court nominee John R. Downey's praise of longtime segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond as a ‘great American’ four years ago has now surfaced as an issue in his legislative confirmation.”
That “praise” stuck in the craw of state Legislative judiciary committee co-Chairman Michael Lawlor, who said, according to Lender’s report, that the comments about Thurmond, “by themselves, are unlikely to derail the Superior Court judge's nomination by Gov. M. Jodi Rell to the higher court.
"Lawlor said Downey's prospects are ‘probably OK, but he's probably going to have to answer questions about his thought process leading up to those comments,’ as well as queries about race relations in general. Downey's confirmation hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.”
Several paragraphs into the story, Lender advises that Downey was praising Thurmond’s “transformation” from one who was considered by many to be a “bigot and racist” to “one of the most responsible and helpful people in terms of race relations in South Carolina, appointing federal judges who were black and doing much for the black community. He also changed his political affiliation from Democrat to Republican. He was an example, I think ... of people who can see that the truth in life, sometimes we only see it later in life, but he was a person who seemed to transform in that regard."
One can well understand why Lawlor feels that Downey’s remarks would not damage the judge's prospects.
U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, intending to throw a bouquet at Sen. Robert Byrd’s feet, praised the former Klu Kluxer in lavish terms in the well of the senate following one of Byrd’s orotund remarks in the course of which Dodd said, “Robert C. Byrd in my view, Mr. President, would have been right at anytime. You would have been right at the founding of this country. You would have been in the leadership of crafting this Constitution. You would have been right during the great conflict of civil war in this nation (italics mine).”
Dodd’s remark was particularly damaging because shortly after the Civil War the Klu Klux Klan was gruesomely active in terrorizing African Americans, and Dodd’s compliment to a son of the Old South followed a similar display involving Trent Lott, who was reprimanded by the senate for having praised Strom Thurman.
At the time, Roy Innis of the Congress of Racial Equality said about Dodd, “He was wrong then; he's wrong now. He was a hypocrite then; he's a hypocrite now… I mean, Dodd was the one that called for the scalp of Trent Lott. How can he, in good faith, look in the mirror and do what he did?”
Dodd currently is running for president. Lender's Courant story did not mention Dodd, although the parallels are striking.
Downey’s remarks about a former bigot and racist differ from the remarks of Dodd and Lott in one crucial respect: It is clear from Downey’s remarks that he is praising the transformation of a former racist and bigot – the conversion, if it may be put this way, of a sinner into a respectable non-bigot and non-racist. Such transformations are praiseworthy, and the lesson Downey described in court ought to be proper and praiseworthy in all branches of government.
Lawlor's point in the Courant story is that Downey’s remarks, apparently harmless in themselves, have no place in a courtroom.
In the Courant story, Downey was vigorously denounced by one of Lawlor's apparatchiks, judiciary committee member, Rep. David McCluskey of West Hartford. McClusky said, according to the Courant report, "that a judge's praise in court of 'one of the poster children of segregation and racism in the United States ... strikes me as unusual.' McCluskey, like Lawlor, doubted he would vote against Downey on the basis of the comments he read in the transcript, but he said he will listen to hear whether 'people of color, who have appeared before him ... feel they have been treated fairly.'"
McClusky's last remark is particularly despicable, because it mischaracterizes Downey's remarks praising the transformation of a bigot and racist and suggests that Downey himself is infected with racism and bigotry. It is also despicable that Lender would permit himself to be used as a hatchet to carve up the reputation of an honorable judge.
It will be very difficult for the practitioners of the politics of personal destruction to similarly transform Downey's remarks into a stick to beat a popular governor with, but Lawlor and his confederates on the increasingly politically partisan Judiciary Committee obviously think it’s worth a try.