Alabama’s Tiny Terror
Reader: Are you someone who is angry in an inchoate way at the Trump administration as an institution but who would prefer to focus your anger like a laser beam on specific individuals? We here at The Baffler are here to help! As a wise man once told my father while trying to sell him a program at a Knicks game, “They’re just a bunch of tall guys in shorts, without a program”—and so, too, the various hangers-on in the Trump orbit may seem to be just a bunch of transparent grifters and/or terrifying ideologues in suits unless you have a clear guide for who the players are. We plan to bring you the key stats and career highlights of all the best people in the administration, as well as those who are “too hot” for government service and end up bounced out to the 2020 campaign, various 501c3 scams, or who just end up on the semi-consensual receiving end of those rambling “executive time” phone calls. Today’s profilee: Donald Trump’s first friend, and his greatest enemy: Jeff Sessions!
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has achieved something incredible, even in the weird, topsy-turvy world of 2018 politics: he has become a routine target for President Trump’s public and withering contempt and yet has somehow failed to become a #resistance hero. How has he managed to pull this off? Is it because he’s terrible? Yes, that is in fact the reason. He’s terrible! And before his star-crossed attorney-generalship, before the senatorial career that employed and nurtured Stephen Miller as a staffer, Jeff Sessions was busy being terrible in his home state of Alabama. Let’s take a dive in to the details!
Jeff Sessions was a Republican before it was cool! Back in 1969, when most of the Southern political establishment was still solidly Democratic despite their growing estrangement from the national party, Jeff Sessions led the tiny Young Republican club at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, where a college friend admitted they were largely checked out of the political ferment in Alabama at the time. Still, being ahead of the curve on his party registration helped him out when national Republican administrations had important positions to fill: in 1975, just two years after getting his law degree, he was appointed an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama by Gerald Ford, and then as U.S. Attorney by Reagan in 1981.
Jeff Sessions was fixated on phantom voter fraud before it was cool! One of Sessions’s big prosecutions in Alabama was the so-called “Marion Three” trial, when former Martin Luther King aide and Selma marcher Albert Turner was put on trial with two associates for altering absentee ballots. While the circumstances around the case were somewhat murky, Turner and his co-defendants said they had been working to help illiterate African American Alabamans exercise their right to vote in a rural area where there was a deep history of voter suppression; the fact that this was the first big move Sessions had made as U.S. Attorney into the fraught world of voting rights in the post-Civil Rights Era South didn’t win him any friends. The prosecution collapsed and earned him a rebuff from Coretta Scott King.
It wasn’t all stopping poor black people from voting, though: Sessions also filed a number of desegregation cases, if by “filed” you mean offering occasional moral support to cases mostly brought by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. He also helped prosecute some Klansmen for a particularly vicious murder (emphasis on the “helped”), which kind of seems like . . . the least he could do, honestly?
Jeff Sessions could’ve been a federal judge, but people said a bunch of mean things about him! That letter from Coretta King was specifically aimed to scuttle Reagan’s attempt to appoint Sessions to a federal judgeship in 1986. Her efforts, along with those of others, succeeded! It wasn’t just the Marion Three business, though that didn’t help his cause; a lot of damning testimony came from J. Gerald Hebert, one of Sessions’s African American subordinates, who told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Sessions:
- Called him “boy” and told him to be careful what he said to “white folks.”
- Was irritated enough by cases referred to his office by the Civil Rights Division in D.C. that he said “I wish I could decline on all of them.”
- Called the NAACP and ACLU “un-American,” and contended that they did more harm than good by trying to “force civil rights down the throats of people who were trying to put troubles behind them.”
Sessions claimed not to remember most of this stuff, which sounds . . . bad? We’re going to with bad. He did say that his remarks on the ACLU and NAACP were specifically about those groups’ support for the Sandinistas. What can we say, the eighties were a crazy time! Anyway, the anti-Sessions charge on the Senate Judiciary Committee was led by the superstar team of Joe Biden and Ted Kennedy, who got an unexpected assist from Republican turncoat Arlen Specter. (Years later, after Specter defected to the Democrats, he handed his position as top Republican on the Judiciary Committee over to . . . Jeff Sessions, and also said he regretted his anti-Sessions vote, because Specter simply could not stop changing his mind about things, apparently.)
How has he managed to pull this off? Is it because he’s terrible? Yes, that is in fact the reason. He’s terrible!
Jeff Sessions didn’t give up on his dreams of making a difference! Whereas you and I might’ve found the experience of being rejected from a federal judgeship for being too racist in the 1980s humbling, and maybe would’ve taken the opportunity to reassess the direction of our lives, Jeff Sessions kept right at it! In 1994, Sessions was able to leverage Ted Kennedy’s enmity into Alabama votes, getting him elected state Attorney General in that very Republican mid-term cycle. And he spent the better part of his term leading the state government’s fight to resist a court order that tried to level wildly unequal spending on public education. Alabama had rescinded the constitutional right to an education in the wake of Brown v. Board—meaning, so far as Sessions and the state government were concerned, that there was no obligation to do any kind of socialistic redistribution of funds between wealthy (mostly white) school districts and poor (mostly black) ones. The fight got so involved that Sessions, who had just laid off a bunch of lawyers in the AG’s office to save money, had to hire private ones at higher rates, but the important thing was that the state didn’t ultimately concede defeat until he left for higher office.
Sessions didn’t just focus his ire on ruining primary and secondary education, of course. He also turned his eyes to the state university system! Specifically, in 1996 he tried to enforce a state law that made it illegal for public universities to fund groups that promote “actions prohibited by the sodomy and sexual misconduct laws” by shutting down the Southeastern Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual College Conference, scheduled to be held at the University of Alabama that year. When the school refused to budge, he tried to get an injunction to stop the conference, which was shot down by a federal judge on First Amendment grounds, as was an attempt he made to “monitor the conference for violations of the law,” which sounds like it would’ve been a very sexy mission for some lucky state government lawyer indeed!
But it turned out that two years was all that Jeff Sessions could spare for Alabama’s law problems, because in November of 1996 he was elected to the Senate, where he would enjoy himself for the next twenty years. He eventually became the first senator to endorse Trump, which unbeknownst to him at the time would be the start of a real emotional rollercoaster in his life! We feel that you’re probably up to date on all the drama about Trump, Sessions, the DOJ, and Russia, and so won’t recap that here, but we will point out some of the important work that Sessions has committed himself to that has made the endless emotional abuse worthwhile, including reversing consent decrees the Obama administration had imposed on rogue police departments, bringing back mandatory minimum sentences and civil asset forfeiture, threatening to prosecute elected officials in sanctuary cities, quoting the Bible to justify putting kids in jail, withdrawing DOJ protections from trans people, and, of course, threatening to go after marijuana businesses even in states that have legalized the drug. Jeff Sessions really hates weed!
On that last point, though, Sessions found himself overruled by the president, who bowed to pressure from a Republican senator from pot-crazed Colorado. How much longer will Sessions have to put up with this kind of undermining from his boss? Well, maybe just a couple months, since everyone seems to think Trump will fire Sessions after the midterms. So if you need another reason to push for a mildly improbable Democratic Senate takeover next year, consider this: if Republicans suddenly find themselves without a majority that can rubber-stamp presidential appointments, these two might find themselves locked in a battle of mutual loathing for another two years. You can’t say they don’t deserve it—or each other.