SAN DIEGO – At a time when we “unfriend” those we disagree with, and when we’re only interested in opinions that reaffirm what we believe, is it still possible to acknowledge the value of someone we don’t particularly like?
It is. Because it happened to me.
When I heard that special counsel Robert Mueller had finally submitted his report, the first person I thought of was Jeff Sessions.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson was also thinking about Sessions. After all, it was the then-attorney general’s recusal from the Justice Department investigation into possible Russian interference in the 2016 election that opened the door for Mueller’s appointment. No recusal, no Mueller. Many conservatives will never forgive Sessions for that decision.
On his television show on the day the report landed, Carlson argued that Sessions had been “really hurt” by all this and that his reputation had been “completely destroyed” because of the investigation.
Please. Sessions had to recuse himself because he had met with Russian officials as a surrogate for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. And while it’s true that Sessions has been “really hurt” by all this, the person who hurt him wasn’t Mueller. It was Trump. You don’t hire someone and then publicly humiliate him for months. Trump put Sessions on the spot and then put him in the crosshairs.
That’s what I was thinking of when I met Sessions recently at College of the Ozarks, a Christian institution in Southern Missouri where both of us were invited to speak.
After hearing him address the students, and then engaging in some private small talk, I came away with a new appreciation for the man. And no one was more surprised by this epiphany than me.
Over the years, I must have written about a dozen columns about the Alabamian. Almost all of them were negative. Some were downright mean. When Sessions railed against affirmative action, I bashed him. When he helped Trump get elected, I bashed him again. And when, as attorney general, he targeted so-called “sanctuary cities,” well, you get the idea.
In the 1980s, when he was the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, he was accused of being racist toward African-Americans. That narrative only got stronger when, as a U.S. senator, he took positions that were at odds with the best interests of people of color.
There is no surprise here. You go around claiming that white people are discriminated against, or that local police departments that are under consent decrees for violating people’s civil rights should no longer be monitored, or that we should limit legal immigration – most of which comes from Africa, Asia and Latin America – and, well, people are going to call you names.
But now that I’ve met Sessions, I understand why so many Americans appreciate and admire the man. For folks who live south of the Mason-Dixon Line, or in the Midwest, he’s a hero for going as far as he did in life given his humble beginnings.
Born in 1946, Sessions was raised in the tiny town of Hybart, Ala., where his father owned a country store. He’s not a product of the Ivy League but of Huntingdon College in Montgomery and the University of Alabama School of Law. After becoming a lawyer, and then serving as U.S. attorney, he was nominated for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama – only to have his nomination scuttled amid accusations that he had made racially offensive remarks. Sessions then ran for Alabama attorney general and won. Then he ran for a U.S. Senate seat and won that, too. Finally, in 2017, Sessions got the position he always wanted when he became attorney general. Unfortunately, the person who gave him his dream job turned out to be a nightmare.
I’ve always had my beefs with Sessions, and I still do. Meeting him didn’t change that.
However, I hail from a small farm town in Central California, where they grow everything – except high expectations for the people who live there. So Sessions’ journey resonates with me.
When we met, Sessions put out his hand and joked: “Is this the famous Ruben Navarrette?”
I smiled, and I thanked him for his service.
“Well,” he said. “We’ve had an interesting ride, haven’t we?”
Yes, sir. We have.
Now that the Mueller investigation is done, the country is owed an explanation for how this debacle was possible. And Trump owes Sessions an apology for putting him in a position that was impossible.