Mr. Tanner, Unforgiven

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, October 31, 2007

John Tanner is one sorry man.

The chief of the Justice Department's voting rights division, Tanner was called before a congressional panel yesterday to explain exactly what he meant when he said earlier this month that "minorities don't become elderly the way white people do; they die first."

"Let me first note that I have apologized," he said as he began his testimony before a House Judiciary subcommittee.

"My explanation of the data came across in a hurtful way, which I deeply regret," he added.

Also: "It was a very clumsy statement."

And: "I hurt people."

Not to mention: "I'm apologizing that my tone caused this."

Don't forget: "I certainly had a bad tone and clumsiness."

And the old standby: "I said it in a way that did not communicate effectively."

There is nothing quite so abject, profuse and groveling as an apology offered by a man who fears he is about to lose his job. But even Tanner's ritualistic self-abasement did not put Democrats on the subcommittee in a forgiving mood.

"The comments call into question your fitness to head this important section," Rep. Jerry Nadler (N.Y.), the panel chairman, informed the penitent witness.

"If you are basing your conclusions on stereotypes rather than facts, then it suggests to some of us that someone else can do this job better than you can," added Rep. Artur Davis (Ala.). "Bizarre remarks," contributed Rep. Bobby Scott (Va.).

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