Andrew Cohen: Many bigoted leaders have championed minorities once in office

Perspective and looking at the record:

A year ago, the United States Senate was divided over the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, tainted by allegations of sexual misconduct when Kavanaugh was in high school and college. The Republicans limited – and rushed – the FBI investigation into Kavanaugh. It never even interviewed some of his critical old classmates. But the Republicans called the whole affair a smear campaign and confirmed him.

Now there are more allegations. Leading Democrats say he should be removed from the court. If they regain control of both houses of Congress in next year’s election, they could try.

Before that, they should consider the dangers of holding a public figure accountable today for the thoughts or actions of a youthful yesterday. Senate Democrats in Indiana, Missouri, Florida and North Dakota who opposed Kavanaugh lost their seats last year. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who supported Kavanaugh, won.

The suspicion: Democrats in red states (which Donald Trump won in 2016) were punished for their votes on Kavanaugh, suggesting there’s a penalty for this kind of politics. Rather than celebrating their courage, skeptics suggest that voters either didn’t think that Kavanaugh was guilty – or that if he was, it was long ago and didn’t emerge in his career as a jurist.

This is the question raised by Justin Trudeau and blackface, which has generated much sanctimonious comment in the United States. Trudeau has his defenders, though. Conservative writer and columnist Andrew Sullivan, for example, says pillorying someone for their former self is absurd.

In Trudeau’s case, wearing blackface was cavalier, crude and ignorant. But he isn’t a racist. And even if he were in his deepest thoughts two decades ago, would it matter?

Judging public figures by their private behaviour is complicated. Can we really hold people to account for what they said or did before they were fully formed? And can we judge them by their views (or acts) in the face of their public record? In Trudeau’s case, wearing blackface was cavalier, crude and ignorant. But he isn’t a racist. And even if he were in his deepest thoughts two decades ago, would it matter?

In its composition and its policies, Trudeau’s government is diverse and progressive. His cabinet comes from both sexes, many faiths and colours. His immigration and refugee policies are relatively generous. For those who dislike Trudeau, his fondness for shoe polish will only reinforce their antipathy. But there is nothing racist about his government. Nothing. And that’s why the reaction of the élites may be harsher than that of the people.

All prominent people have misjudgments in their past. A young Pierre Trudeau flirted intellectually with fascism and the anti-Semitism that shaped the conversation in Quebec in the 1940s. Did it matter? Trudeau as an adult was defined by his commitment to personal freedom. Patriating the British North America Act and entrenching the Charter of Rights was the single greatest act of statesmanship in our history.

Lyndon Johnson was a racist. He blithely used “n—–” in private conversations, even as president. It was earthy and offensive to blacks in his circle. The same Johnson drove the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. No president since Abraham Lincoln was as important on race.

Harry Truman also used “n—–” privately but it didn’t stop him from integrating the military. Richard Nixon was an anti-Semite who saved the State of Israel when he sent it planeloads of arms during the Yom Kippur War.

For each, did racism, anti-Semitism or bigotry, matter? Not if you believe that their public deeds negated their private thoughts.

Kavanaugh is more complicated. He should remain accountable for what many conclude was sexual assault. One reason is that as a high court judge, he is one of America’s nine moral arbiters, appointed for life; many judges beyond suspicion could fill the job. Another is that he apologized for nothing and was intemperate in his hearing, unbecoming of a judge.

But had Kavanaugh simply disliked (not accosted) women, as those presidents disliked blacks or Jews, why should we care what’s in the human heart – and in the past – if that is where it stays?

Source: Cohen: Many bigoted leaders have championed minorities once in office

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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