We should have seen it coming in 2001. That’s when President George W. Bush selected U.S. District Judge Charles Pickering of Laurel for promotion to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Pickering was met with a verbal assassination, and it has only become worse.
As voting nears for Mississippians and nationwide, the Pickering fiasco illustrates a question worth pondering: Why on Earth would any sane person seek to serve in public office?
Politics has always involved wheeling and dealing, but it has disintegrated into a bloodsport.
Pickering was well-known in Mississippi, having served in the state Senate, having been a candidate for various state and federal offices, having served as state chairman of the Republican Party and having served as president of the Mississippi Baptist Convention.
Clean guy — but he was pro-life and didn’t equivocate about it.
When the appeals court vacancy arose, Pickering had already served 11 years on the federal bench, having first been appointed by President George H.W. Bush.
He was targeted immediately. “Suspicious facts” were discovered. In addition to being pro-life, as a promising young attorney in the 1950s he was recruited to a prominent firm headed by Carroll Gartin, who served multiple terms as lieutenant governor and was a segregationist. Also, in 2004 Pickering had sentenced one of three cross-burners (the other two pleaded guilty) to less than the maximum.
On this evidence, the decision was made to dodge the abortion issue and label him a racist. It worked.
Never mind that Bill Clinton’s Justice Department agreed that he got the sentence right. Never mind that he had been a KKK-buster while a prosecutor in the 1960s and testified against the notorious Sam Bowers when Bowers was tried for the murder of civil rights pioneer Vernon Dahmer. Testimony from Laurel people — black and white — that Pickering was fair-minded was ignored. National civil rights groups shouted their outrage, although, to its credit, the Mississippi NAACP declined to join the charade.
Pickering was shamed, and although he did serve a recess appointment to the appeals court a filibuster later killed his nomination for good.
Today, truth, which had been dancing around the exit sign, has now left the building and increasingly, although not yet in Mississippi, partisans have become violent.
Perhaps it’s the saturation media coverage, perhaps it’s the proliferation of mindless “debate” on social media — but something has caused a larger segment of the population to lose perspective and fall prey to manipulation.
This could be seen inside and outside the auditorium where Hillary Clinton was to have made her victory speech in 2016. The faithful were sobbing, apoplectic (as were many got-it-wrong journalists) at the outcome.
It could be seen in 2017 when James Hodgkinson drove from Illinois to Virginia and opened fire at a softball field, wounding four people, including a member of Congress.
It could be seen last month when members of the Senate Judiciary Committee had armed escorts everywhere they went.
And it could be seen last week when bombs were intercepted after being mailed to Barack Obama, Clinton and George Soros, who funds leftist causes, and other “enemies of the people.”
Democracy requires an informed, attentive public. Citizenship comes with duties, including being aware of local, state and national issues as well as voting. Our quality of life and the quality of life for generations to come depends on an informed public, guiding elected leaders to reasonable and rational outcomes — and replacing them if they don’t.
Yet increasing numbers of people have become convinced all — all — is lost unless their guy is elected or their party is in power.
And that’s just not true.
In my line of work, I have met, observed, talked with and written about dozens upon dozens of local, state and national officials.
Some have been bandits, thieves destined for scandal and prison. Some have been egotists who believed they were smarter than the average bear and relished the perceived adulation that comes with being called “mayor” or “governor” or “representative” or “senator” or “judge.” Some — and this is brutal — have defaulted into public careers after failing to prosper in the private sector. Most – by far the largest group — have been what was formerly known as “patriots.” They cared about their community, state or nation and were willing to be part of trying to devise solutions.
And that takes us back to the initial question. Why would a calm, rational, thoughtful person — which is what we need in public service — even consider becoming part of the visceral, lying landscape that is politics today?
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at email@example.com.