WASHINGTON – Loretta Lynch had them at Jim Crow.
Senate Republicans had delayed confirmation hearings for President Obama’s attorney general nominee until they took control of Congress – giving them a chance to use the nomination to protest Obama’s immigration policy and other actions by Obama and the outgoing attorney general, Eric Holder.
But those who figured they could take out their frustrations on Lynch had misjudged her: The nominee has a long and impressive resume as a no-nonsense prosecutor, and she managed at Wednesday’s hearing to be both assertive and anodyne in her testimony, expert in the law but opaque about controversial legal matters. As important, Lynch, with the help of committee Democrats, painted an unassailable biography: This daughter of a fourth-generation minister and a segregation-fighting mother from the South would be the first African-American woman to be the nation’s top law enforcement official.
The case against Lynch deflated faster than if the New England Patriots had run the hearing.
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Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, toned down his prepared statement as he read it. “I, for one, need to be persuaded that she will be an independent attorney general,” he read, but he then departed from the text and added, “I have no reason to believe at this point she won’t be.” He read a long list of complaints about the administration’s actions but then ad-libbed, “As far as I know, Ms. Lynch has nothing to do with the Department of Justice problems that I just outlined.”
The panel’s new Republican leadership was already on thin ice over its decision to remove the phrase “civil rights and human rights” from the name of its subcommittee on the Constitution. The atmosphere in the room surely had to make the members of the all-white committee think twice before turning Lynch into a punching bag for their disagreements with Obama and Holder. More than half of those in the public seats were black, and 40 of them wore red – the color of Delta Sigma Theta, Lynch’s predominantly black sorority.
Lynch, all of 5 feet tall, planted her spiked heels firmly on the floor in front of her and leaned her forearms on the witness table as she made her case. She described her mother as a “courageous young teacher who refused to let Jim Crow define her” and who “refused to use segregated restrooms, because they did not represent the America in which she believed.” In North Carolina, she said, her father “opened his Greensboro church to those planning sit-ins and marches, standing with them while carrying me on his shoulders.”
Democrats formed a chorus to repeat the message. “She grew up hearing her family speak about living in the Jim Crow South,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said of the “historic” nominee. Said Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., “Her mother picked cotton when she was a girl so her daughter would never have to.”
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., described her as “witness to a moment in history” because of her father’s civil rights work, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., told the story of how Lynch’s school named a second valedictorian because it was thought having Lynch as sole valedictorian would be “too controversial.”
Even if Republicans had the appetite to challenge a nominee with such a life story, her lawyerly demurrals made it impossible for them to land a blow. Several times, Republican senators asked what she thought of an opinion from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel defending Obama’s executive actions on immigration. She replied over and over that she found the opinion “reasonable” and the overall policy legal, but she went no further.
She blended flattery – “I certainly think you raise an important point and would look forward to discussing it with you and relying upon your thoughts and experience,” she informed a skeptical Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. – with reminders that she had nothing to do with policies Republicans found objectionable.
The performance was disarming. After Lynch assured Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, that she would take the attorney general’s independence “very seriously,” Hatch said that “you’ll be a great attorney general if you’ll do that.”
Even the dyspeptic Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, acknowledged that his legal friends in New York describe her as “a U.S. attorney who honored and respected the law.”
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) summed up the demobilization of the anti-Lynch forces. “You’re not Eric Holder, are you?” he asked.
“No, I’m not,” the nominee replied.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.