Heather Cox Richardson
“O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.”
Langston Hughes wrote these words in a poem published in 1936. He wrote as the Dust Bowl baked in the heat, Louisiana senator Huey Long died by gunfire, the Supreme Court invalidated much of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, a serial killer terrorized Cleveland, workers finished Hoover Dam, the Depression dragged on, and Black and Brown Americans fell even farther behind their white neighbors.
Today, at the Senate confirmation hearing for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) recited some of Hughes’s poem, and the choppy era in which we are living made Hughes’s words apt.
Russia’s war on Ukraine is four weeks old. The State Department announced today that “the U.S. government assesses that members of Russia’s forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine” and that the government is committed to bringing the perpetrators to account. President Joe Biden today flew to Brussels, where he will meet tomorrow with leaders of the 29 other NATO nations to discuss the conflict. Biden is expected to unveil a plan to replace the Russian oil and gas cut off by sanctions with supplies from the U.S., helping Europe to avoid a crisis even as the U.S. imposes still harsher sanctions on Russia. The meeting is also expected to discuss contingency plans in case Russian president Vladimir Putin deploys chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons.
At home, former president Trump is in the news.
The New York Times today published the resignation letter of former prosecutor Mark Pomerantz, who quit his job after the new Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, stopped the process of seeking an indictment against the former president. In his letter, Pomerantz wrote, “I believe that Donald Trump is guilty of numerous felony violations of the Penal Law in connection with the preparation and use of his annual Statements of Financial Condition. His financial statements were false, and he has a long history of fabricating information relating to his personal finances and lying about his assets to banks, the national media, counterparties, and many others, including the American people. The team that has been investigating Mr. Trump harbors no doubt about whether he committed crimes—he did.”
Pomerantz suggested that Bragg stopped the forward motion of the case out of concern about “the legal and factual sufficiency of our case and the likelihood that a prosecution would succeed.” Pomerantz countered that “a failure to prosecute will pose much greater risks in terms of public confidence in the fair administration of justice.”
Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, has been under investigation in North Carolina for claiming a false residence for purposes of voting, a deception that might constitute voter fraud. News broke today that his wife, Debra Meadows, filled out two official forms claiming the couple lives in a trailer in rural North Carolina, although they actually live in a condo in Old Town Alexandria in Virginia. One of the forms she signed reads: “Fraudulently or falsely completing this form” is a Class I felony.
Paul Manafort, Trump’s 2016 campaign manager and a convicted felon, was taken off a plane in Miami because his passport had been revoked. The plane was headed for Dubai.
Today, Trump withdrew his endorsement of Alabama Representative Mo Brooks, such a staunch supporter he spoke at the January 6 rally at the Ellipse, for suggesting that the party needs to move on past the rehashing of the 2020 election. Brooks has been trailing in the polls.
After Trump’s announcement, Brooks said that Trump had “asked me to rescind the 2020 elections, immediately remove Joe Biden from the White House, immediately put President Trump back in the White House, and hold a new special election for the presidency,” all of which would have been an illegal attempt to overturn the legitimate results of the election. Brooks said Trump was pushing this plan as late as September 2021.
Today, at the third day of the Senate confirmation hearing for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, Trump Republicans turned in a performance for right-wing media, expressing outrage over their manufactured concern that certain of Judge Jackson’s sentences for child pornography were too short and that she is a secret warrior for Critical Race Theory in the schools.
This is such a transparent reach for base votes that will score an interview on right-wing media that immediately after Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) spoke about Critical Race Theory, Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) said "I think we should recognize that the jackassery we often see around here is partly because of people mugging for short-term camera opportunities." Sasse’s point was borne out when a camera then apparently caught Cruz checking Twitter for his own name.
Certain Republican senators badgered and bullied Jackson, who could not fight back without endangering her chances of confirmation. It was an abusive dynamic that spoke ill of the process and of the senators themselves: the abusive Republicans, but also the many Democrats who, as legal analyst Dahlia Lithwick pointed out, did little to remind viewers that the Republicans have stacked the court with extremists who are poised to take away our fundamental rights, and instead just let the Republicans beat up on Jackson.
Tonight Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) illustrated the profound difference between Jackson, who demonstrated a profound understanding of our founding documents and our legal system, and those browbeating her when she tweeted: “The Constitution grants us rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—not abortions.”
It is, of course, not the U.S. Constitution but the Declaration of Independence that declares: “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It goes on to say “[t]hat to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….”
Senator Booker, though, pushed back against the Republicans as Jackson could not. In an impassioned speech, quoting Langston Hughes’s vow that “America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath—America will be!” Booker said “There is a love in this country that is extraordinary.”
He spoke of Jackson’s parents and how they “didn’t stop loving this country even though this country didn’t love them back.” Jackson has talked of how the life of civil rights attorney Constance Baker Motley inspired her; Booker said: “Did she become bitter” when no one would hire her after law school? “Did she try to create a revolution? No, she used the very Constitution of this nation. She loved it so much she wanted America to be America….”
“That is the story of how you got to this desk,” he told Jackson. “You and I and everyone here: generations of folk who came here and said, ‘America, I’m Irish. You may say no Irish or dogs need apply, but I’m going to show this country that I can be free here. I can make this country love me as much as I love it.’ Chinese Americans forced into mere slave labor building our railroads connecting our country saw the ugliest of America, but they were going to build their home here and say, ‘America, you may not love me yet, but I’m going to make this nation live up to its promise and hope.’ LGBTQ Americans from Stonewall women to Seneca…. All of these people loved America.”
“And so you faced insults here that were shocking to me—well, actually not shocking. But you are here because of that kind of love.”
Finally, today brought the passing of Madeleine K. Albright, whose parents were Czech refugees from the Nazis and the Communists, at 84. Albright served the United States as a diplomat and then as Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton, the first woman to serve in that role. Her most recent op-ed, published by the New York Times just a month ago, illustrated just how deeply she still engaged with the nation’s interests. She warned that invading Ukraine “would ensure Mr. Putin’s infamy by leaving his country diplomatically isolated, economically crippled and strategically vulnerable in the face of a stronger, more united Western alliance.”
Her extraordinary career was a fitting backdrop today to Booker’s illumination of Judge Jackson. “The act of striving,” Albright once said, “is in itself the only way to keep faith with life.”