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.).

"You come here to stagger our imagination," agreed Rep. John Conyers (Mich.). The witness pulled in his chair, adjusted his glasses, pinched his nose, shifted his arms and adopted a variety of pained expressions. His Alabama accent and singsong delivery did not help defuse the situation, and his pale complexion grew increasingly red as he answered angry questions from black Democrats.

Tanner's respectful tone in the hearing room seemed to clash with his rather colorful public remarks in recent months. He suggested to a gathering of the NAACP that requiring photo identification would not disenfranchise black voters, because "when someone goes to a check-cashing business, God help them if they don't have a photo ID." Further, he added: "People who are poor are poor; they're not stupid."

Tanner has some managerial problems, too. His deputy, Susana Lorenzo-Giguere, has been accused of collecting a per diem while spending time with her family at their Cape Cod beach house. And Democrats are angry because Tanner overruled his own staff to endorse a controversial voter ID program in Georgia.

But it was Tanner's assertion that the Georgia ID law wouldn't harm elderly minority voters because "they die first" that caused him the most trouble -- and he tried to preempt the criticism in his opening statement. "The reports of my comments do not in any way reflect my career of devotion to enforcing federal laws," he said, informing the lawmakers that he did civil rights work in Alabama in the 1960s and that he has letters of support from various civil rights groups.

Apology not accepted. "Only people with bad credit need cosigners," Davis retorted.

Nor did Tanner get much of a defense from Republicans on the panel. "I want to appreciate very much your apology," was as far as Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.) would go. Rep. Steve King (Iowa) gave Tanner a chance to defend himself, asking whether his "statement was supported by empirical data."

"I again apologize for the statement," began Tanner's careful response.

Conyers suggested the treatment of Tanner might have been even worse if he hadn't brought his wife and daughter to the hearing, a development that made lawmakers "more polite than we were going to be."

Still, it's hard to imagine what more the committee members could have done to humiliate the witness.

"I'm not 100 percent sure what you're apologizing for," Davis asserted, demanding to know whether the "die first" claim was accurate.

"It was a very clumsy statement," Tanner replied.

"Is it an accurate statement?"

"Mr. Davis, I may not completely understand the question."

When Tanner tried to defend himself, Davis cut him off ("Don't give me a long answer") and devoted himself to berating the witness. "Once again, you engaged in an analysis without knowing the numbers," he lectured.

Even that, however, was just a warm-up act for Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), who, like Davis, is black.

"Exactly what are you apologizing for?" Ellison demanded.

"I hurt people," Tanner confessed.

"How did you hurt them?"

"The reaction of people to my statement --"

Ellison pounced. "So you are apologizing because of the reaction?"

Tanner retreated. "I caused that reaction, certainly not intentionally. I made a clumsy statement."

"So the problem is the tone?" Ellison pressed.

"I certainly had a bad tone and clumsiness."

This also failed to satisfy Ellison. "Are you just trying to curry favor?" he demanded.

"I feel that if I make remarks that people misinterpret --"

Uh-oh. "So people misinterpreted what you said?" a triumphant Ellison asked.

Tanner retreated. "I apologize for that," he said.

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