SCOTUS pick politics: Bring the crazy!

White men are a little overanxious about Obama's next move, as I experienced on "Hardball."

Published May 7, 2009 12:54AM (EDT)

The debate over President Obama’s first Supreme Court nomination is bringing out the crazy in political discourse this week. As Mike Madden shows, the GOP is lining up against a nominee who doesn’t exist yet, while even alleged liberals have itchy pants over the notion that Obama might nominate a woman and/or a Latina -- particularly 2nd District Appeals Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who would be the proverbial two-fer -- female and Latina, and also clearly qualified.

Or maybe not so clearly qualified! Rebecca Traister and Glenn Greenwald have counted all the ways that Jeffrey Rosen’s slimy piece, relying heavily on unnamed sources as well as named sources who were nowhere near the scene of Rosen’s story, slimed Sotomayor in depressingly familiar stereotypes of gender and race: She’s a loudmouth ballbreaker -- and maybe not so smart. Blech.

Richard Cohen came out of the gate with a subtle hand grenade at Sotomayor Tuesday morning, in a column demanding that Obama make affirmative action a Supreme Court "litmus test" -- as in, if you’re for it, you're toast -- based on the painful and complicated case of white firefighters (and one Latino) who sued the city of New Haven, Conn., alleging race discrimination. The plaintiffs claim they were discriminated against when the city denied them promotions they believe they earned, based on promotion-test results, because no black firefighters would have been elevated based on the same test. New Haven decided such an outcome would constitute race discrimination because it had a "disparate impact" on minorities -- under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, if 80 percent of minorities fail a test, it is considered potentially discriminatory -- a court backed the city, and Sotomayor’s 2nd District Appeals court ruled, 7-6, not to take the case.

If the outcome of the New Haven case doesn’t make you a little squeamish, you’re not really paying attention. The issue is not (no pun intended) black and white. But the white male pundit fraternity has taken up the cause of the white New Haven firefighters with dispiriting volume and a total lack of complexity. George Will got there before Cohen, and tonight "Hardball's" Chris Matthews and Pat Buchanan joined them, in a two-on-one smackdown against yours truly, in which I hope I held my own. (Here's the video; text below.)

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I said early and often I was uncomfortable with the outcome of the case, particularly that a dyslexic white firefighter named Frank Ricci spent his own money on test prep and quit a second job to prepare for the exam, then didn’t get the promotion he thought he deserved. But I also had the gall to point out, on this all Irish-Catholic panel, that the problem is that so many fire departments remain disproportionately white, and in particular, Irish Catholic. For years in San Francisco, and I've written extensively about this, the position of fire chief was handed down from one Irishman to another, a roster of Sullivans and Kellys and Murrays and Murphys and a Walsh (no relation). When the string was broken by former Mayor Willie Brown’s pick, Bob Demmons, the heavily Irish union went into near-mutiny.

The problem is, no mayor -- and so far, no president -- has been able to come up with a promotions system that is fair to everyone and that isn’t fought by white-dominated firefighters’ unions. And so the battle continues in many cities. In San Francisco, a black firefighter was actually served dog food in the firehouse only a few years ago; in New York, a city that’s majority black and Latino, the fire department is 91 percent white.

I always think truth is on my side, and what I just wrote, and what I said on "Hardball," is the truth. But I wasn’t prepared for my friend Chris Matthews actually accepting the truth I laid out -- that white men, and especially Irish Catholics, have hoarded these jobs and passed them down from father to son and brother to brother -- and still arguing with me. Matthews accepted all my premises -- and saw nothing wrong with them. It was interesting. Firefighting is a white, Irish Catholic "tradition," Matthews argued, much like Italian barbering and Mexican restaurants, Matthews said. I actually consider it progress, to have that point of view out in the public realm. But honestly, I didn't think it was progress when he clobbered me with 9/11, though I got over my chagrin (my good friend Digby caught the transcript):

MATTHEWS: Damn it Joan, the guys that got killed on 9/11, a lot of them were Irish and they chose to be firefighters, because it's a family tradition going back to the 19th century ...

WALSH: Don't race-bait me, Chris. There are firefighters in my family. God bless them ...

MATTHEWS: Then why are you accusing them of bigotry?

WALSH: Because the fact of the matter is that they have protected those jobs for their brothers, for their sons, and they're public sector jobs. This isn't the family business, Chris. Bravery comes in all colors.

Alrighty then. Ahem. I’ve settled down now.

Matthews’ admiration of President Obama is well known, but listening to him and Buchanan, and reading the Sotomayor coverage, it’s hard not to think that having a black president, who might actually not appoint a white male to the Supreme Court, is threatening some folks. Watch for more crazy, soon. I will give Chris Matthews this: Unlike other cable hosts who will go unnamed (for now) I expect him to have me back after this. He likes a good fight; we’ve fought before, we’ll fight again. I’m grateful to have a place to tell the truth, whatever the outcome.


By Joan Walsh

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