Friends Don’t Let Friends Become Career Bigots: 4 Lessons We Can Learn From Someone Who Called Jeff Sessions ‘Friend’
Before families have the opportunity to worry about the paid sick days we still don’t have, the paid family leave we desperately need, or the child care fixes we’re MacGyvering year in and year out, there’s the matter of whether or not we can exist — quite literally exist. And President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for Attorney General, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, is a serious threat to our health, freedom and actual lives.
Yes. He’s the guy who’s accused of calling a Black colleague “boy.” He’s the guy whose office prosecuted one of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s advisers. He’s the guy who called the NAACP and ACLU “un-American.” He’s the guy who’s accused of saying he thought the Ku Klux Klan was “okay until I found out they smoked pot.” And you know the KKK. Jeff Sessions’ tenure as a Congressman is rife with cause for concern, but if you won’t take it from those of us who are very (very, very) concerned, take it from a man who called him a friend.
In 1986, J. Gerald Hebert was a senior trial attorney with the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. J. Gerald Hebert and Jeff Sessions were friends. Hebert testified against him anyway. What follows are a few hard lessons we can all learn about confronting our friends when it matters most — and right now, it certainly matters most.
#1: It’s okay to admit that a friend is a friend — and a total tool.
No, really. Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions and then-Department of Justice Civil Rights attorney J. Gerald Hebert were cool. Like, actually cool. Like ‘I’m in town, let’s kick it’ cool. Like, ‘shooting-the-breeze-at-the-water-cooler’ cool. The 200-page transcript from Sessions’ 1986 confirmation hearing are full of Hebert’s cautious recollections about the man who could still become “America’s lawyer.” On multiple occasions, he was careful to let the committee know that Sessions was a friend he personally believed in — but simply couldn’t vouch for as a federal judge.
Senator DENTON. In the sense that you believe that he would do what he says, do you believe he could be a fair and impartial Federal judge?
Mr. HEBERT. I would hope he could; I do not know.
#2: One of the most sincere ways to put a friend’s behavior in check is to do it in private before you do it in public.
Ask Billy Bush. If there’s anything to learn from the 2016 election about public versus private conduct, it should be that laughing at “locker room talk,” even if you’re the one who didn’t say it, can get you written off at best, and fired at worst. Whether you personally believe in being a gross human being doesn’t matter once you’ve co-signed gross human behavior. It’s also pretty dishonest to let a friend believe you endorse their active bullshit only to hang them out to dry later. Fortunately for Gerry Hebert, his testimony revealed no such inconsistency. When asked if Jeff Sessions stood by the comment that a white civil rights attorney was “a traitor to his race,” Hebert testified that Sessions smiled. Gerry Hebert did not smile with him — and that makes all the difference.
Mr. HEBERT. And I mentioned to Mr. Sessions that, you know, this had been said that a lawyer who handled civil rights cases in Mobile was either a traitor to his race or a disgrace to his race.
Senator Joe BIDEN. And what is your recollection of Mr. Sessions’ response or comment to your statement?
Mr. HEBERT. As I recall, he said, well, he probably is.
Senator BIDEN. Now, did he laugh or did he joke, or did you laugh when he said that? (…)
Mr. HEBERT. He smiled, Senator; he smiled when he said it. He did not laugh. He did not have a serious look on his face, but he smiled when he said it. And I said, oh, come on. That is my recollection of the conversation.
“I MENTIONED THAT TO HIM AT THE TIME HE MADE THEM.”
Senator DENTON. Do you consider yourself sensitive on the racial question?
MR. HEBERT: Yes.
Senator Jeremiah DENTON: Do you consider Mr. Sessions insensitive in the same sense?
Mr. HEBERT. I think that some of the comments he has made and the comments that I testified about yesterday, in my judgment, showed racial insensitivity, and I think I mentioned that to him at the time he made them.
#3: Know the difference between the damage your friend can do to you, and the damage your friend can do to others.
Then-Sen. Joe Biden asked an admittedly hard question of J. Gerald Hebert: if Hebert’s colleagues — colleagues who weren’t friends of Jeff Sessions — had to encounter him as a judge, would he feel compelled to bring up his bias? Reading the transcript of that 1986 hearing, it’s evident that Hebert and Sessions seemed to have enjoyed the philosophical sparring that characterized their relationship. But when presented with the (literally) lifelong implications of a Judge Jeff Sessions, it appears Hebert conscientiously objected to seeing that conduct translated into prejudicial sentences; sentences that would undoubtedly be served to people who wouldn’t enjoy the luxury of calling Jeff Sessions a friend.
“I WOULD CERTAINLY RAISE THE ISSUE”
Senator BIDEN. Let me be more specific. It is a tough, tough question to ask you. Based on the comments that Mr. Sessions has made to you, in jest or to challenge or in seriousness, whatever the context or the collection of contexts, if you left the Justice Department and were handling a case for the NAACP, a voting rights case, and it came before Judge Sessions, would you not at least raise the question with co-counsel and/or your client that you should make a motion to recuse Judge Sessions on that case?
Mr. HEBERT. I would certainly raise the issue, absolutely.
#4: If the stakes are high enough, being a good friend may mean ending an otherwise good friendship.
J. Gerald Hebert and Jeff Sessions did not live happily ever after. If this were a fairy tale, it might conclude with a short passage about how hate and prejudice and bigotry were vanquished and love won the day — but no. It’s 2017, and Jeff Sessions and Gerry Hebert don’t exactly call each other friend, much less anything else these days. That is, however, the very real risk required to clap back against rampant bigotry at this hour.
“I JUST FELT BAD ABOUT IT; THAT I KNEW THIS WAS NOT GOING TO HELP HIM”
Mr. HEBERT: And as I said a few minutes ago, I really-I have a very good personal relationship with Jeff Sessions. I have worked side by side with him on some cases in the sense that I have had to go to him for some advice. And I felt bad about it last night, and I did not do anything about it. I just felt bad about it; that I knew this was not going to help him. But by the same token, I felt that I had done my duty. I had come up to the Hill when I was told to and I told the truth yesterday, as I am telling the truth today.
The moral of the story? Friends don’t let friends became career bigots. If J. Gerald Hebert could stand up to his friend, certainly, we can pull together to #StopSessions, too.