Listen, if you dare, as Abigail Thernstrom describes the most hostile scene she has ever faced in her 66 years in this vale of tears.

Thernstrom is an academic, author and a neocon think-tank commando. She's also a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and the hostile scene occurred the very first time she attended a commission meeting and encountered its famously feisty chairman, Mary Frances Berry.

"I was appointed just days before," she recalls. "We're all up on a platform in a line of chairs. The commissioner sitting next to me manages to turn her back on me even though it's a straight line of chairs. Then we were introducing ourselves to this Florida audience and I say, 'I'm Abigail Thernstrom. I'm a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. I'm co-author of 'America in Black and -- .' And Mary Frances Berry says, 'We're not going to announce our books.' I said, 'Can I say something? "America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible." ' She never welcomed me to the commission. She never said, 'Hello. I'm Mary Frances Berry. I look forward to working with you.' I have never walked into such a hostile scene in all my life, and I doubt I'll ever walk into such a hostile scene again."

When Berry, 64, hears that quote read to her, she smiles mischievously.

"Oh, poor baby!" she says.

Then she says it in Spanish: "Pobrecita!"

Then she bursts out laughing.

It's safe to say that Thernstrom and Berry are not the best of buddies.

Several clues point to this conclusion. First, there was the 2001 "Nightline" show in which the two commissioners kept interrupting each other until you thought they might start biting each other's ears off. A few months later, they called each other liars at a Senate hearing. Then Thernstrom had these choice words to say about the chairwoman:

"Mary Frances Berry is a totalitarian. She's a book burner and she constantly lies."

Hey, Abigail, don't be bashful! Tell us what you really think.

But Berry and Thernstrom aren't the only commissioners who trade insults. At one meeting, Cruz Reynoso, the commission's vice chairman, berated Thernstrom for her "lack of veracity." Commissioner Jennifer Braceras once called Berry a "left-wing provocateur." Commissioner Christopher Edley once described one of Thernstrom's books as a "crime against humanity." And . . . well, you get the idea.

Obviously the civil rights commission, created by an act of Congress in the 1950s, is a hotbed of nasty feuds and personal attacks. But it's more than that. It's also a hotbed of petty squabbling and bickering.

In the past two years, members of the commission have squabbled and bickered over where the commission should meet, whether commissioners should be permitted to talk to the commission staff, the pay scale and office space of the commissioners' personal assistants, and whether staff director Les Jin answers his e-mail fast enough.

All this occurs despite the fact that -- or perhaps because -- the stakes are so low. The commission has a budget of $9 million and a staff of about 75 but little power. By statute, all it can do is hold hearings and issue reports. And, of course, squabble about the hearings and bicker about the reports.

Most of the commissioners -- part-timers paid $35,000 a year -- are college professors. Many are lawyers. Four -- Berry, Reynoso, Braceras and Edley -- are both college professors and lawyers. This cross-training enables the commission to combine the petty infighting of academia with the nitpicking and hair-splitting of the legal profession.

For 20 years, the commission has been a battleground between ideologues of the Left and the Right. For most of the '80s and '90s, conservatives controlled the commission. In the late '90s, thanks to an influx of Democratic appointees, the liberals took control. Now the commission's eight members are evenly split -- four liberals, four conservatives.

Led by Berry, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania and veteran of 22 years on the commission, the liberals are: Reynoso, a former California Supreme Court justice; Edley, a Harvard Law School professor; and Elsie Meeks, a former Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor of South Dakota.

Led by Thernstrom, the conservatives are Russell Redenbaugh, an economist and veteran of 12 years on the commission; Peter Kirsanow, a Cleveland labor lawyer; and Braceras, a law professor who was appointed by President Bush in 2001, shortly after she published an article urging Congress to abolish the commission.

Since August, when the commission became deadlocked at 4-4, the two sides have not even been able to agree to meet in the same room. Instead, they've spent their time squabbling and bickering by fax and e-mail over who gets to decide where the meetings will be held.

Hitting the Road During its 45-year history, the commission has tackled some of the great civil rights issues of our time -- segregation, job discrimination, voting rights, police brutality, affirmative action.

Now the commission is wrestling with a new and unique civil rights issue: Do commissioners who are boycotting out-of-town meetings of the civil rights commission have the right to attend the meetings by teleconferencing from the commission's Washington office? And if so, should the commission pay for the boycotters' flights to Washington so they can listen to the meetings by phone?

This latest brouhaha began in May, when the commission voted to hold its monthly meetings in cities across America.

"We thought it would be healthy for us to go out there and meet with real people instead of sitting in Washington all the time," says Berry.

In June, the commission traveled to Miami to hold a hearing on Florida's election problems. In July, it traveled to Detroit, home of the country's largest Muslim community, to hold a hearing on the post-9/11 problems of Arab Americans.

In August, the commission took its annual vacation. Berry decided that September's meeting would be held in Wilmington, Del., where the commission would meet volunteers from its state affiliates from Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

That's when the squabbling and bickering began.

"I can't figure out for the life of me why we're wasting our time traipsing off to Wilmington. There are more important things to do," Thernstrom said. "Am I allowed to say this? I don't think the chair likes to be in Washington."

A week before the Wilmington meeting, the conservatives announced that they were boycotting the event. "Without us, they have no quorum," Redenbaugh told the Washington Times.

On the day of the meeting, none of the conservatives appeared in Wilmington. But two of them, Thernstrom and Kirsanow, flew to Washington and appeared in the commission's office hoping to take part in the meeting by speakerphone -- a setup sometimes used to allow staffers to monitor out-of-town meetings. But this time no speakerphone had been hooked up.

Irate, Thernstrom and Kirsanow immediately issued a press release, protesting that they weren't permitted to attend the meeting that they were boycotting: "For immediate release -- Two commissioners show up at U.S. Commission on Civil Rights headquarters; told they cannot participate in meeting."

That was weird enough. But it soon got weirder.

In mid-September, staff director Jin announced that the commission's October meeting would take place in Jackson, Miss., during festivities celebrating the 40th anniversary of the desegregation of Ole Miss.

A couple of weeks later, the conservatives announced that they wouldn't go to Mississippi. Redenbaugh said he had business commitments in California and asked to participate by teleconference. Thernstrom, Braceras and Kirsanow said they'd planned "other civil rights related events in Washington" and asked if they could teleconference from the commission headquarters.

Jin responded by memo: Redenbaugh would be allowed to teleconference from California. But there would be no teleconferencing from Washington. "It would be inappropriate to authorize Commissioners to travel to Washington D.C. while a Commission meeting is scheduled elsewhere," he wrote, "or to authorize payment for time spent in Washington D.C. at the same time as a scheduled Commission meeting elsewhere."

Thernstrom and Kirsanow protested the ruling in a memo that contained three footnotes. Then they canceled their "other civil rights related events in Washington" and stayed home. Meanwhile, Redenbaugh declined to teleconference from California, citing a scheduling conflict.

And the squabble goes on. The conservatives are demanding that the commission vote by phone on where to meet. But Berry refuses, claiming that phone votes are only for emergencies. Citing the power of the chair, she simply announced that the Nov. 15 meeting would be held in San Diego. She did not announce why.

At this point, the conservatives aren't saying if they'll attend. They are not officially boycotting, they say, but they might not show up, either.

"I would very much like them to come to the meeting so we can discuss these matters," says Berry. "I still can't figure out why they don't want to come."

Of course, she could call the conservatives and ask why they don't want to come. But she won't do that.

"They don't want to hear from me," she says.

A Colorful History Life on the commission wasn't always this bad. It used to be better. But, if truth be told, it used to be worse, too.

The commission was created by Congress in 1957 as an independent agency composed of six commissioners -- three Democrats and three Republicans -- appointed by the president with a mission to study civil rights. Over the next decade, the commission collected data on discrimination and issued reports that helped lay the foundation for the landmark civil rights bills of the 1960s.

In those days, the commission was frequently called "the conscience of the nation." But those days faded fast. By the 1980s, civil rights issues had became more complex and the commission became more controversial. And the era of squabbling and bickering began.

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan fired the three Democrats on the commission, including Berry. They sued to keep their jobs and the firings became a full-fledged Washington firefight that ended with Congress restructuring the commission. Now it would have eight commissioners -- four appointed by the president, four appointed by congressional leaders.

Berry was promptly reappointed by House Speaker Tip O'Neill. And she has been there ever since, much to the chagrin of conservatives, who have called her everything from "abrasive" to "obnoxious," from a "race-baiter" to a "Maoist."

In 1986, the General Accounting Office issued a report accusing the Republican-controlled commission of mismanagement and financial waste. Republicans denounced the report as a politically motivated attack on the commission.

Later in 1986, Congress voted to cut the commission's budget from $12 million to $9 million. J. Al Latham, the commission's Republican staff director, resigned in protest. Berry denounced Latham as a man in "mad pursuit of ideology" and defended the funding cuts: "Here are guys spending $12 million a year and all we do is fight all the time."

In 1993, President Clinton appointed Berry chairman of the commission, but Republicans on the panel refused to confirm the nomination. That left the old chairman, Republican Arthur Fletcher, in charge. A month later, Fletcher announced that he was tired of being chairman -- it was not a "pleasant experience," he said -- and the commission voted to confirm Berry.

In 1997, the GAO issued a report on the commission, which was now controlled by Democrats, accusing it of mismanagement and financial waste. Democrats denounced the report as a politically motivated attack on the commission.

And so it went, year after year of squabbling and bickering. "Commission meetings have been raucous affairs," this newspaper noted in 1986, "with members attacking each other in highly personal terms."

But the raucous meetings of the '80s and '90s were mere warmups for the raucous meetings of 2001, during the commission's Great Florida Election Flapdoodle.

Advise and Dissent "He's lying," says Commissioner Redenbaugh.

"She misled me," says Commissioner Reynoso.

"Hogwash," says Commissioner Thernstrom.

Wait! Hold it, commissioners! We know you think your opponents are liars. But first a little background:

When the 2000 presidential voting in Florida ended in deadlock amid complaints of spoiled ballots and voting irregularities, the commission voted unanimously to conduct a study. It held two hearings, heard scores of witnesses and gathered reams of data.

In the spring of 2001, the commission staff wrote a report that called Florida election officials "grossly derelict" for permitting "widespread voter disenfranchisement," with black voters "nearly 10 times more likely than white voters to have their ballots rejected." Even before the report was given to the commissioners, somebody leaked it to the media.

That much is beyond dispute. After that, the story bogs down in charges, countercharges and accusations of lying.

First, Redenbaugh accused Berry of leaking the report and he called on President Bush to fire her. Berry denies the charge: "I did not leak the report."

A few days later, in a combative meeting, the commission approved the report in a 6-2 vote, with Redenbaugh and Thernstrom dissenting.

Thernstrom called the report "a total sham." She wrote a 58-page rebuttal to the commission's 130-page report and she presented it at a Senate hearing on the subject -- a hearing enlivened by the spectacle of Berry and Thernstrom angrily accusing each other of lying.

Thernstrom demanded that the commission publish her dissent along with its report. But Reynoso was adamantly opposed. At a tempestuous meeting, he insisted that the commission could not legally publish Thernstrom's dissent. Her use of statistician John Lott to crunch numbers for her rebuttal violated a federal law that forbids government agencies from using unpaid labor, he said.

"This [dissent] is illegal and should not be published by the commission," he said.

The law Reynoso cited was real but it had been ignored for years by commissioners who frequently got unpaid help from outside experts for various projects.

Redenbaugh suggested that the commission circumvent the law by paying Thernstrom's statistician a token dollar. Edley thought that was a good idea.

Reynoso didn't. "I consider this an outrage," he said.

Then Berry weighed in. If the commission doesn't publish the dissent, it will "fall into a trap set by the dissenters," she said. "They will characterize it as suppressing their freedom of expression."

Later, Berry came up with what she characterizes as a compromise. She persuaded the commission to publish a lengthy appendix to the Florida report. It contains all of the information submitted at the Senate hearing, including Thernstrom's dissent.

Berry figured that would make Thernstrom happy. It didn't.

Although the commission published her entire dissent, Thernstrom still insists that Berry "suppressed" it.

"I don't regard the dissent as published," she says.

Why not?

"What they published," she complains, "was an early first draft that had a lot of embarrassing typos and other errors."

Several of her fellow commissioners scoff at that reasoning. "To argue that Abigail's voice has been censored is at odds with the facts," says Edley. "Poor Abigail being gagged is just inaccurate."

Berry is more blunt. "It's a crock," she says.

Seat of Discord The Great Florida Election Flapdoodle was a high point -- or maybe a low point -- in the commission's long history of squabbling and bickering. But there was still plenty more squabbling and bickering to come.

One classic squabble began in November 2001, where President Bush appointed Kirsanow to the commission, replacing Victoria Wilson, a liberal who happens to be Berry's book editor. But Berry refused to seat Kirsanow, claiming that Wilson's term had not expired.

Wilson was appointed by Bill Clinton in 2000 to serve out the term of a commissioner who died in office. Her official appointment certificate stated that her term ended on Nov. 29, 2001. But Berry claimed that the 1994 law that reestablished the commission said that all commissioners serve six-year terms.

"This is an attempt to muzzle the commission's work in reaction to the work we've done in Florida," Berry said. "They feel if they can rip off a seat, they can muzzle us."

Thernstrom disagreed. "The chairperson is afraid of dissent," she said. She also added this: "Most people regard the commission as partisan hacks."

As Kirsanow watched from the audience, the commission voted to refuse to seat him. It was another tempestuous meeting: Reynoso sparred with Braceras over Robert's Rules of Order. Berry repeatedly referred to Kirsanow as a "member of the audience." And Thernstrom charged once again that the commission "suppressed my dissent."

The White House filed suit in federal court, asking a judge to remove Wilson and seat Kirsanow. The court declined, ruling in Wilson's favor. The White House appealed, and in May, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled unanimously for Kirsanow. He took his seat a few days later while the commission appealed to the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, there was the Battle of the Book Review. In the fall of 2001, Christopher Foreman, a University of Maryland professor, wrote a book review for the commission's annual magazine, Civil Rights Journal.

But it contained a brief, positive reference to Thernstrom. Jin killed the article, claiming that the magazine shouldn't write about sitting commissioners. Foreman protested, igniting a media firestorm. Finally Jin relented. But that proved to be a pyrrhic victory: The magazine has never been published since and nobody can say if it will ever appear again.

Then there's the squabble over whether the lawyer that Kirsanow wants to hire as his special assistant should be paid as a GS-13, Step 1 or a GS-13, Step 10. That dispute sounds pretty esoteric but it got so noisy that it roused the righteous indignation of the Wall Street Journal, which editorialized in favor of the higher pay grade -- a rare instance of that particular paper endorsing higher pay for a federal worker.

And then there's the squabble over . . . No. Wait. Enough about petty squabbling and bickering. It's time to discuss the big important civil rights issues that lie behind all this petty squabbling and bickering.

Worlds Apart So, Chairman Berry, what are the big important civil rights issues that lie behind all this petty squabbling and bickering?

"It's hard to tell," she says, "because my colleagues who do most of the complaining have never proposed anything of substance that the commission should look into. . . . When the fighting breaks out, most of the time it's people talking about procedures and how somebody didn't answer a memo or somebody procedurally didn't do this, that or the other."

Needless to say, other commissioners disagree.

"There is serious substance behind the political theater on the commission," says Edley. What the two sides are really battling over, he says, is a profound disagreement on what the government should or should not do to alleviate the economic and educational disparities between the races.

"When you strip the commission down, it's a clash of ideologies," says Allan J. Lichtman, the American University history professor who served as consultant on the commission's Florida report. "Thernstrom and her supporters believe that civil rights was solved long ago and it is basically being kept alive by race agitators like Mary Frances Berry for their own benefit. And Berry and her camp believe that there are still major problems with minorities that ought to be studied and investigated."

Redenbaugh puts it a bit differently. "Where we disagree -- and should disagree -- is on the strategy for dealing with the problem," he says. "Mary Frances Berry's strategy is to pass more laws and to be more into group rights and affirmative action. I think that's a bad strategy and I think we ought to debate that, instead of all this foot-stomping over how Reynoso doesn't like this or Thernstrom doesn't like that."

But the commission spends far more time on foot-stomping than it does on substantive debate. And now the commissioners can't even agree to meet in the same room. Perhaps it says something about the polarized state of racial discourse in America today that even the government's official Commission on Civil Rights cannot conduct a civil discussion about civil rights.

Not surprisingly, Thernstrom blames this state of affairs on Berry and the liberals. "These people are terrified of any conversation on race and ethnicity that recognizes the complexity of the social landscape in 2002," she says. "They really think that America is unchanged, that everywhere you look, it's 1950 in Mississippi."

"I've never heard anything so ridiculous in my life," Berry responds. "I don't think we're in Mississippi in the Jim Crow era. In the Jim Crow era, I was in Nashville, a little black girl going to high school in a segregated school. I know the difference between that and what's going on now."

In Need of a Time Out Russell Redenbaugh is tired of it.

He just signed on for a third six-year term, but he's tired of the foot-stomping, the name-calling, the infighting, the squabbling, the bickering.

"Do you have kids?" he asks. "Did you ever want to strangle them all? Did you ever say, 'I don't care who started it. I don't care who did what to who first.' " He sighs. "I'd like to spank them all and say, 'Just get over it already.' "

The commission's plans to meet in Wilmington, Del., prompted a boycott by the panel's four Republican members. They haven't returned since.The rancor between U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Chairman Mary Frances Berry, above, and commissioner Abigail Thernstrom, left, notably spilled into the Senate at a hearing on the Florida election problems in June 2001, when each accused the other of lying. "When you strip the commission down, it's a clash of ideologies," says an academic who has worked with the commissioners.The liberal half of the Commission on Civil Rights -- from left, Christopher Edley, Cruz Reynoso, Mary Frances Berry and (next to staff director Les Jin) Elise Meeks -- carried on with a meeting in Wilmington, Del., despite a boycott by the four conservative members.Abigail Thernstrom, left, was among several conservatives invited to the White House in December 1997 for a discussion of racial issues with President Bill Clinton. More than three years later, Congress appointed her to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.Commissioner Peter Kirsanow, center, needed a federal appeals court ruling before he could take his seat on the civil rights committee.