The nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court has already achieved a boon for our political culture: It has helped leading liberals and Democrats to discover that being tarred as a racist on flimsy grounds is unfair and deeply unpleasant. Sen. Diane Feinstein (D., Calif.) for example, when asked on Face the Nation to respond to Rush Limbaugh’s and Newt Gingrich’s comments about Sotomayor, said, “That’s an absolutely terrible thing to throw around. Based on that statement — that one word ‘better than’ [sic] — to call someone a racist is just terrible and I would hope that Republicans would not do this.”
Senator Feinstein was right as far she went. She avoided one undeniable fact, though. If a white-male nominee had been discovered to have said something similar — that he was better situated to judge due to his background and life experiences than a Latina woman was — he would be cashiered so fast as to induce whiplash. Those are the unwritten rules that Limbaugh and Gingrich are attempting, one suspects, to expose for their one-sidedness. Nevertheless, the instant labeling of the woman, based on one unwise remark, is hardly fair. If Democrats are learning this now, that’s excellent news. One hopes they will remember this discovery when the wheel turns and a Republican nominee is before the Senate. Certainly they didn’t seem to get it as recently as 2002, when President Bush nominated Judge Charles Pickering to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Then-majority leader Tom Daschle (D., S.D.) said Judge Pickering had displayed an “insensitivity to civil rights, to equal rights, especially to minorities. . . . This [nomination] lays bare the administration’s real position on civil rights.” Leading liberal newspapers tolled the bell with headlines like “Extremist Judge Unfit to Sit on Appeals Court” in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution and “Say No to This Throwback” in the Los Angeles Times.
The Democrats succeeded in torpedoing Pickering’s nomination — not to mention assassinating his character. More than “insensitive,” he was called a crypto-racist with a “segregationist past” (Paul Krugman). When President Bush offered Judge Pickering a recess appointment to avoid a Senate filibuster, Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.) breathed fire: “Here we are, on the weekend before a national holiday when we celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday, and George W. Bush celebrates it by appointing Charles Pickering, a known forceful advocate for a cross-burner in America, to the federal court of the United States.”