BOTH SIDES NOW

Fifteen hours of testimony didn’t get Americans any closer to figuring out whether Jeff Sessions is a bastion of integrity or a racist

Obsession
2016
Obsession
2016

Is Alabama senator Jeff Sessions fit to be US attorney general?

The very unsatisfying answer for those who endured the more than 15 hours of congressional testimony spread over two days this week is: It depends on who you ask.

Throughout Sessions’ confirmation hearing, conducted on Jan. 10 and Jan. 11, lawmakers, more than a dozen witnesses, and the senator himself offered what they claimed were impartial assessments about his record and character. But how could they have been, when the evidence presented painted two diametrically opposed pictures of the man whom US president-elect Donald Trump has nominated to fill the top law-enforcement job in the land?

To his supporters, Sessions is a bastion of integrity, a staunch defender of the law, and a believer in equal justice. To his opponents, he’s at best someone who has a record of undermining civil liberties, and at worst a flat-out racist. Amid that kind of contradiction from those who would claim an understanding of the man or his work, what’s the American public to make of Sessions?

His hearing underscores the inherent difficulty of escaping the echo chambers that shape our worldview, and serves as an important reminder that there’s often no shorthand for the truth. It takes time, patience, and rigor to collect and analyze data—in the case of Sessions, some of which dates back more than three decades.

As it turned out, 15 hours of testimony on Sessions weren’t enough to set the record straight.

Some of the witnesses even used the very same case—Sessions’ prosecution of African-American activists for voter fraud in 1985—to back up either the nominee’s supposed commitment to civil rights or his alleged hostility to them. Sessions’ critics contend that the accusations made in that case were unfounded and represent an attack on the African American community and its access to the ballot. But his defenders respond that this can’t be so, because the plaintiffs who brought the accusations in the case were also African American.

Do voters need to go through all the court documents themselves to hunt down the real story? And if they did, would they find it?

To be sure, a sensible observer can gauge the credibility of at least some of the information presented during the hearing. But that’s a job made all the more difficult when the opinions offered in the testimony—whether from a personal friend, a citizen watchdog group, or a former attorney general—were presented side by side with little context, creating the illusion that they were equivalent.

Who are Americans to believe more? A legal expert from the ACLU who, after examining the details of cases prosecuted by Sessions, concluded the senator abused his power? Or a former staffer who says he can testify that Sessions will be fair based on their years working together? “I know it because I know Jeff Sessions,” William Smith offered as evidence. “I know his family. I’ve dined at his house. We’ve eaten Johnny Rockets burgers together.”

The key question about Sessions is whether he will ensure that civil rights for all Americans are respected, which is a core responsibility of the attorney general’s office. But it’s not enough that the answer be credible. It also has to somehow manage to stay above the political fray—a tall order in a hyper-partisan environment in which everyone’s political motivations are seen as suspect.

For example, when NAACP president Cornell Brooks testified against Sessions, senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina tried to discredit him by saying his organization has a history of giving better marks to Democrats than Republicans.

“It means that you’re picking things that conservative Republicans don’t agree on and liberal Democrats do. I hope that doesn’t make all of us racist,” Lindsey told Brooks.

In the end, it’s hard to imagine any Senate members being swayed by the hearing. As in other arenas of American life, it seems like everybody’s mind was already made up.

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