It’s a truism that free speech is usually defended on behalf of the most despised among us, putting me in the unpleasant position of speaking out for Elizabeth Warren. The junior senator from Massachusetts sought to read a 30-year-old letter from Coretta Scott King, dating to Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions’ failed effort to be confirmed as an Article III judge.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren has earned a rare rebuke by the Senate for — believe it or not — quoting Coretta Scott King on the Senate floor.
The Massachusetts Democrat ran afoul of the chamber’s arcane rules by reading a 30-year-old letter from Dr. Martin Luther King’s widow that dated to Sen. Jeff Sessions’ failed judicial nomination three decades ago.
The chamber is debating the Alabama Republican’s nomination for attorney general, with Democrats dropping senatorial niceties to oppose Sessions and Republicans sticking up for him.
This was, of course, part of the dog and pony show put on by the nation’s most genteel deliberative body for public consumption. There was nothing new about the letter, or the characterization of Sessions it reflected. Warren was playing to her tribe, using the Senate as her stage. This isn’t exactly a new thing in Congress.
The very idea of having to listen to Warren read from King’s letter is cringeworthy. She is a shrill, hyper-partisan attack dog, reflecting the worst and lowest of progressive politics. But she is, despite all odds, a United States Senator. As insufferable as it may be to have to endure the sound of her voice, it is the price of holding a seat in the chamber. Nobody forced Mitch McConnell or any Senate Republican to seek and hold office.
Still, top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell invoked the rules. After a few parliamentary moves, the GOP-controlled Senate voted to back him up.
Now, Warren is forbidden from speaking again on Sessions’ nomination. A vote on Sessions is expected Wednesday evening.
That there are rules to protect the gentlemen’s club isn’t surprising. The set-up is to damn with faint praise, to avoid the vulgar and rise above the banal. Warren couldn’t, or wouldn’t, accommodate the rules. She’s not the first to fall short, as when Ted Cruz called McConnell a liar. Hypocrisy happens to everyone, you see, and the only saving grace this time was that McConnell held sufficient votes to end Warren’s screeching.
To the extent the Senate feigns graciousness, McConnell’s maneuver made him play the role of the goad in Warren’s dog and pony show. Did King’s letter hurt the Republicans’ feelings? Was it too vulgar, challenging Sessions’ racist history, for the delicate ears of senators to hear? This was such a petty affair, such a well-known accusation against Sessions, that letting it play out would have harmed no one and raised no issues. But McConnell just couldn’t do it, and so now we’re left to defend the dreaded Elizabeth Warren’s right to speak.
But Sessions is awful, and so Warren had no choice but to risk rebuke to make her case? Of course he’s awful. Whether he will prove to be the worst attorney general ever is hard to say, as the bar is so very low. We have had some truly bad attorneys general in the past couple generations, so that it’s unclear how the worst would be measured. Even the “good ones” were bad, and the bad ones were worse. Sessions will almost assuredly rank among the worst.
“I’m reading a letter from Coretta Scott King to the Judiciary Committee from 1986 that was admitted into the record. I’m simply reading what she wrote about what the nomination of Jeff Sessions to be a federal court judge meant and what it would mean in history for her,” Warren said.
Senators have visions of themselves remembered as great orators, brilliant debaters, uttering words of wisdom in stentorian voices that will move Americans, stir their passions, for generations. Despite the millions upon millions of words murdered in that chamber, few are remembered by anyone. Elizabeth Warren’s reading of this letter might have made a blurb in a newspaper for a day and then been promptly forgotten. This isn’t a reflection on Coretta Scott King, whose credibility speaks for itself, but that there is no one interested in the AG position or politics who hasn’t heard all this before.
In a weird and unfortunate way, McConnell has done Warren a huge favor by making her effort to read this letter, to play to her crowd, to condemn her fellow senator and the next attorney general, memorable. Silencing speakers, including a senator, is an extreme act, an unwarranted act, a disingenuous act by the Senate Majority Leader. Why was Warren such a threat? Why did he need to silence Warren? Why make Elizabeth Warren a free speech martyr?
All this so senators wouldn’t have to hear the words of Coretta Scott King?
No. Of course not. The senators’ ears won’t fall off if they hear mean accusations against one of their own.
King wrote that when acting as a federal prosecutor, Sessions used his power to “chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens.”
Back in the 80s, Jeff Sessions was a racist. That’s different than a racist today. Back then, being a racist took some effort, some flagrant animus toward blacks. Today, the word “racist” has been reduced to meaninglessness. Everybody who isn’t on the cutting left edge of progressivism is racist. But for Sessions to be rejected as a federal judge because he was too much of a racist in the 80s was a shocking condemnation.
The salient question today is whether Jeff Sessions is still the racist he was in 1986, when he was rejected by the Senate as an Article III judge. As for his regressive and astoundingly simplistic grasp of criminal law, there is little question. Then again, that has been a job qualification for AG for both parties for a very long time.
So let Elizabeth Warren speak. Let Warren read the letter. Let Warren condemn Sessions, shriek to the chamber about how awful he is and how harmful he will be. Much as we condemn children for silencing Milo and punching the pseudo-Nazi weasel, it’s no more acceptable when it’s Senate Majority Leader McConnell.
If there is a metric for bad censors, McConnell may win a prize, not only for silencing a fellow senator but for embodying the political hypocrisy that forces us all to suffer the worst of American politics. Here I am, defending Elizabeth Warren. I hate that you made me do this, Mitch. But do it I will.
Update: Gail Collins at the New York Times grabs Warren by her vagina:
We will now pause to contemplate the fact that this week the Senate Republicans attempted to forward their agenda by silencing Elizabeth Warren while she was reading a letter from Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow.
In explanation, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell basically called Warren a pushy girl.
By “basically,” Collins means he said nothing of the sort, and so she’s going to make it up. There was no evidence to suggest that McConnell’s rebuke had anything to do with Warren being female, but because she is female, why not?!?
And how does this baseless appeal to genitalia play with the Times’ demographic? Not as well as one might suspect:
What occurred to Senator Warren is just another example of bigotry to Native Americans. Native Americans across America need to unite…
In the oppression Olympics, there’s always someone who’s a bigger loser.