GOP leading with its noses

It does not make U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama a racist that he was heard many years ago quipping that he thought the Ku Klux Klan was all right until he found out there was pot-smoking in the membership.

He said the remark was taken out of context. But it's hard to see how. The obvious context is that he thought he was being funny.

There's a meager trace of comedic currency to the line. You get led one direction and then there's the ironic twist. But a person is plainly devoid of discretion or any sense of appropriateness to dare verbalize such a thing.

Saying the joke out loud doesn't mean you actually intended to make light of lynching and racism and hate. But saying it out loud does mean you lack the good sense to know that it could easily be interpreted that way.

"He never had an unuttered thought," former U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas once said of someone -- and he didn't mean it as a testament to the man's candor.

Bumpers himself still likes to make impolitic jokes about the loss of cognizance besetting seniors in nursing homes. He's rather clearly not an anti-senior bigot, though. He's 83 and rather keen on himself.

So might it be with Sessions -- that he's innocent of racial bigotry and guilty only of a faulty internal humor regulator.

All of this is to say the Republicans have problems.

First Arlen Specter left them, giving the Democrats very nearly the 60 votes in the Senate they crave. Then David Souter announced he was leaving the U.S. Supreme Court, presenting President Obama with a nomination for confirmation by the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Specter, until a few days ago, was the Republicans' ranking member and point man.

To replace Specter the Republicans came up with Sessions, extreme conservative from Alabama, the Heart of Dixie and the Heart of the Contemporary American Republican Remnant of a Party.

Sessions is a lawyer and former federal prosecutor. More to the point, then-President Reagan nominated him for a federal district judgeship in 1986 and Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee -- led by guys named Kennedy and Biden -- blocked him.

It was because somebody came forward to relate that Sessions had made that quip. It was because somebody else came forward to say that Sessions once suggested the NAACP was communist.

Sessions shot back that he'd opposed George Wallace as a young man and, as federal prosecutor, had enforced vigorously the law on school integration. Actions speak louder than remote quips, he said.

There are several problems. One is that a man can get derailed for a judgeship because somebody recalls his mere seconds of engagement in ill-advised comments. Ask yourself: In your life, might you have been heard saying something sometime that would not commend you well if repeated to the U.S. Senate?

But another is that Republicans are so alienated on the extreme right that their chosen point man for questioning, challenging and perhaps attacking Obama's Supreme Court nominee will be a man about whom Democrats will need only resurrect the record of his own confirmation hearing. They'll cite his inappropriate comments or, more likely, contend that he merely is extracting personal and partisan revenge for his own treatment.

I suspect Sessions is a decent enough fellow who said a couple of dumb things over a long life that got overheard by the wrong people. He seems to be trying to rehabilitate himself. He said he tended to think imposing a filibuster would be inappropriate on this nominee.

But if Obama's nominee has vulnerabilities, and if Sessions goes after them, then Sessions will be leading with his face and bloodying his own nose, which is what Republicans are doing generally these days.

John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@