Behind the ‘Lani Guinier Mask’ : Politics: Months after her nomination ordeal, she says the public still doesn’t know who she really is.
Given what has happened, it’s surprising that Lani Guinier even opens her hotel room door for a reporter who wants to know the personal side of her cataclysmic experience. What is it like to be plucked from obscurity, made famous overnight, publicly humiliated and then dropped from the highest parapet of power--without a parachute?
In part, Guinier blames shabby journalism for her botched nomination to head the civil rights division of the U.S. Justice Department. The media let her opponents define her and misrepresent her ideas, she says, and reporters didn’t seek unbiased sources to learn what her peers think about her work.
Even after all the commotion--"for a while there, my face was on TV and on newspaper front pages every single day"--she sees herself a “shadowy persona” to the public; a known name, but an unknown entity. A mask with no person behind it. In the entire six weeks, from her day of nomination to the day it was withdrawn, she never spoke publicly.
On her way to California from Philadelphia last weekend, an airport baggage-handler stopped, stared at her and asked: “Aren’t you the woman Clinton dumped? I never forget a face.”
Guinier has said she was not ready to talk, but here to accept the ACLU’s Bill of Rights award, she seems willing to share at least a few thoughts with an unknown reporter who might skewer her again.
This says something about the upbeat and guileless nature of the former nominee, whose own mother tells her she was “too naive and trusting” to survive the process. President Clinton nominated her and then, amid controversy over her writings, withdrew her name before her confirmation hearing, before she could present her own defense.
Guinier is surviving very well, she says, her dignity intact. She has support from friends and colleagues, with whom she can discuss her ordeal. But her husband, Nolan Bowie, an artist and communications professor at Temple University, has fewer such outlets and is still very angry, she says. And her 75-year-old mother . . . here Guinier’s composure dissolves. Tears suddenly flood her cheeks.
“My mother has had a terrible time. It’s taken a physical toll on her. She’s 75, and at that age stress affects you physically. She feels that to be humiliated and publicly tortured” is wrong, Guinier says. “She used to write these very angry letters to the President, and I would tell her not to send them. . . . I think she feels they took advantage of me.”
The nomination at first seemed a brilliant stroke. Guinier would be, Clinton proudly announced, the first practicing civil rights attorney to head the department that enforces civil rights laws on employment, education, housing and voting.
What’s more, her supporters said, Guinier was respected as an innovative thinker, an advocate of racial healing, a brilliant litigator, an integrating and cohesive force in her field.
In a matter of weeks, however, Guinier saw her public image change into “Loony Lani,” “a madwoman,” “quota queen,” “breathtakingly radical,” “anti-democratic” and “a reverse racist"--to name just a few of the printed epithets hurled relentlessly until her nomination was squelched.
Clinton withdrew her name after belatedly reading one of her law journal articles, which he said contained ideas he could not embrace.
“I don’t think he read it with an effort to understand my work, but with a desire to understand the controversy surrounding it,” Guinier says. “If he were trying to understand my work, he wouldn’t have read it on a short helicopter trip to Fredericksburg, Md., or wherever he was going. To understand what an academic writes, you need to set apart a reasonable amount of time. I don’t think 15 minutes will do it.”
Guinier’s opponents quoted from articles she wrote for academic journals in which she seemed to argue for guarantees of political power to minority groups. She also questioned whether majority rule in a race-conscious society can truly be fair to minorities.
“I don’t think anyone can understand complex ideas about political participation by referring to one sentence or one footnote in a 77-page article. If it were that simple, I wouldn’t have written 77 pages--I’d have written one sentence,” she says. “What happened is that they took one segment and examined it as if it represented the totality of my thought.”
Guinier says she didn’t defend herself because “I was asked by the White House not to discuss it . . . not even to speak to civic organizations. It wasn’t just that I was asked not to speak to the press; I was asked not to speak, period.”
Guinier doesn’t back down from anything she wrote, some of which she concedes could be considered controversial. A book of her writings--the ones that caused so much trouble--will be published in February, she says, and citizens can decide for themselves how to interpret her thoughts.
What’s more, she adds, the articles weren’t written as immutable dogma, rather as proof she could think creatively and explore new methods of improving voter participation that might move society ahead:
“I was trying to get tenure. I was an untenured associate professor when I wrote them, trying to make the transition from litigator to provocative scholar.”
In fact, Guinier did get tenure in the spring of 1992.
“How could I have gotten a unanimous (vote for) tenure at the University of Pennsylvania law school--which is a very conservative, mainstream, traditional, Ivy League law school--if my work were as radical as the media said?” she asks. “That is not a radical institution by any means.”
She believes that her experience will “chill the intellectual thought processes” of other academics.
Still, Guinier thinks a nominee’s academic work should be considered as part of the nominee’s record: “They shouldn’t be off limits. What I objected to was the fact that I was not given a chance to explain what the writing meant. Nor was anyone else who had read them . . . asked what it is that people in the scholarly arena think I was trying to do.”
In other words, nobody checked her out?
“No, no one,” Guinier says. “Reporters didn’t do their homework. They didn’t call people who had read and understood and could explain the context in which such articles are written and the meanings of those articles themselves.”
So why, when she saw her public image going down in flames, her nomination in jeopardy, didn’t Guinier stomp into Clinton’s office and demand that the Administration put up a defense? And why didn’t she save everyone from embarrassment and tell the President up front, in advance of the nomination, that she had written controversial things that might cause trouble?
Guinier’s tall, lean frame stiffens. Her eyelids, often at half-mast in relaxed conversation, open wide.
She attempts, in soft, measured tones, to explain that a nomination begins months before the President announces it. She had already spent much of the spring filling out forms, being investigated by the FBI. Early in the game, she says, “the White House Counsel’s office read my writings and discussed what I meant by them. They said, ‘that sounds really interesting.’ ”
In fact, she says, “The President’s office checked me out thoroughly and that’s why they nominated me. They called people who said I was doing some really interesting work, coming up with ideas that are neither liberal nor conservative--simply different.”
Guinier says she came to “dread waking up every morning and looking at the newspapers to see what new tag line was attached to my name.” Not just because of the insult, but because the ironies were so profound.
As the daughter of a white, Jewish mother and a black father, she has sat on both sides of the racial fence.
Her mother’s parents opposed the marriage, she says, and as a child, she felt a certain distance from that side of the family.
One of her vivid early memories is of her maternal grandfather giving her a bath “and he kept telling me that my knees were so dirty, he couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t come clean.”
To explain her position in society, Guinier says, her mother used to tell her that she was part of a special family of “bridge people,” uniquely able to look at the world from all different points of view: “And to ease the stress and discomfort we sometimes felt, she would tell us the challenges we face would ultimately yield an insight into the way people of all races live and think.”
Her father, whose parents immigrated to Boston from the West Indies, attended Harvard but couldn’t live in the dormitories because “blacks weren’t allowed,” and he dropped out when couldn’t get financial aid. He eventually became a professor there.
Early in her career, Guinier chose voting rights as her particular area of interest. After graduating Radcliffe College and Yale Law School, where she became friends with the Clintons, she was a law clerk before joining the Carter Administration as chief assistant to the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division.
She moved to the NAACP legal defense fund from 1981 to 1988, where she headed the voting-rights project and litigated the landmark Supreme Court case that interpreted the 1982 amendment to the Voting Rights Act.
After the birth of her son, Guinier decided to become an academic, which, she hoped, might enable her to take a broader look at participatory democracy and consider ways to move it forward to a place where all people have “not only a vote, but also a voice.”
Many thought she would have done exceedingly well at the job she did not get. But those who spoke up to say that her work was an attempt to promote racial harmony never made a dent.
About 400 law professors and 12 deans signed a petition attesting to her talents--a petition the Administration apparently meant to use during the confirmation hearing, which never took place. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno said she found Guinier’s work “thought provoking.”
So what happened?
“The White House really dropped the ball on this,” Guinier says. “They were preoccupied with other confirmations, travelgate, the haircut--all going on at the same time. Unfortunately, this was a White House that seemed at that moment capable of doing only one thing at a time. My confirmation was not on their radar screen.”
Now, it seems, she has disappeared from the screen entirely.
Although Guinier says the Clintons were her friends and even attended her small wedding, she has not had even a phone call from them since her nomination was withdrawn:
“I think this is a friendship that has been put in jeopardy by politics.”