W.H. Urged To Address "Racist" Charge

U.S. Appeals Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor gives commencement speech in 2003 at Pace University. Pace University

This story was written by Josh Gerstein

Some Democrats and political analysts are urging the White House to shift course and concede that Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor made an error when she suggested in 2001 that Hispanic women would make better judges than white men.

"She misspoke," said Lanny Davis, a White House lawyer and spokesman for President Bill Clinton. "Every day that goes by that they don't say she misspoke and she used the wrong words…..they just feed it and give it life and give Rush [Limbaugh] and [Sean] Hannity more airtime unnecessarily."

Said Democratic strategist Chris Lehane: "In this day and age, six or seven or eight weeks is a long time to go without addressing an issue that can potentially take on a life of its own and evolve and grow."

Lehane said the GOP attacks were "probably continuing the long-term self destruction of the Republican Party." However, he said allowing talk show hosts, blogs, and cable shows to continue to fulminate about Sotomayor's Berkeley comments was risky. 

"You need to find ways to fill up the cup….. She undoubtedly has a very compelling narrative to provide some context but it has to get out there," said Lehane, a former spokesman for Vice President Al Gore and Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.). 

The controversy is swirling around this comment from Sotomayor during a 2001 speech to a Berkeley conference on law and diversity: "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

Conservatives have jumped on the statement, with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) using it Wednesday to brand Sotomayor as a "Latina racist" and to call on her to withdraw. The issue is getting heavy play on conservative talk radio as well as mainstream cable TV news shows.

"Judge Sotomayor would be wise not to tap dance around this. Don't just 'clarify' the statement, take it back," University of Virginia politics professor Larry Sabato wrote in a posting at POLITICO's Arena. "Explain that she simply meant to say that we are all a product of our unique backgrounds and experiences, and that those backgrounds and experiences inform our decisions. But no one's gender or ethnic background inherently leads to superior decisions. It would be refreshing to hear a Supreme Court nominee say, 'I'm not perfect. I made a mistake here.'"

Davis said it makes little sense to allow the comment to linger until late July, which is the earliest likely time for confirmation hearings to begin.

"It's the classic lesson of cutting a story that you know is inevitably going to end at some point with a final punch line. The only question is: how long do you wait?"

One Democratic Congressional aide involved in the confirmation process said the White House could use Sotomayor's expected meetings on Capitol Hill next week as a way to defuse the flap. The aide said that if the nominee clarified her statement during private sessions with senators, word of that clarification could be quickly slipped to the news media.

Lehane agreed: "One way to go is to get her up to the Hill and take a thrown question…or you could clearly find a moderate Democratic senator who's respected by all parties say I talked to her and here's what she said."

However, Davis said faster and more direct action would be better. "Better for her to do it. Second best would be for Gibbs to do it," Davis said, referring to White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

At a press briefing Wednesday, Gibbs insisted Sotomayor's comment was taken out of context and he implored reporters to read the entir speech. He said she was simply stating that "she has lived a different life than some people have" and that different backgrounds "could certainly lead to different conclusions."

Journalists audibly scoffed at that summary, pointing out that Sotomayor talked of a female minority judge reaching a "better" result than a white male counterpart.

Some Sotomayor allies said the White House should not engage over the judge's provocative quote.

"They cannot just spend each say responding to the little snippets and soundbites….The confirmation process will lend itself to that," Democratic strategist Donna Brazile said. "The White House should be forceful. They should not be defensive."

Brazile also said she was "very surprised" by Gingrich's reaction. In the past, "he's been rather thoughtful on issues of race and the history of this country," she said, arguing that the attacks on Sotomayor would ultimately "backfire" on Republicans who took part in them.

Complicating the PR strategy is the fact that tradition and protocol usually dictate that nominees for the Supreme Court or other posts avoid public statements, from the time of their nomination until they are confirmed, except for their confirmation hearings.

Davis stressed that he strongly supports Sotomayor's nomination and he called the use of Sotomayor's comment to paint her as a racist was unjustified. "Clearly, the statement is now being maliciously misused," he said.

By Josh Gerstein

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