If this column ends strangely -- without a firm conclusion -- perhaps it's because it began strangely: with a phone call from a congressman who wanted to make a pitch in behalf of an embattled nominee for a high federal judgeship.

Normally that wouldn't have piqued my interest. But the call was from Charles W. Pickering Jr. -- Chip, as he is called -- and his subject was U.S. District Court Judge Charles W. Pickering Sr., up once again for promotion to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit after having been rejected last year by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

I was intrigued. I still am, though perhaps not in the way the congressman might have hoped.

Chip wanted to make the case that his father is being deliberately misrepresented as a racist by people -- mostly liberals and moderates -- who oppose his nomination. These enemies, he said, seize on the fact that he is a conservative Mississippi Baptist whose chief sponsor was Trent Lott, who was forced out of his post as Senate majority leader for praising a segregationist presidential campaign of half a century ago. Ergo, the judge must be a bigot.

The truth, says the son, lies elsewhere. What intrigues me is that it lies all over the place. The nomination of this Mississippian to the 5th Circuit was made initially after the Senate had rejected, without even a vote, the circuit court nominations of two African Americans and a Hispanic. The idea of "payback" must have crossed a few minds.

Oh, and he's antiabortion.

Opponents have made much of the fact that Judge Pickering once handed down a sentence of a mere 27 months to a convicted cross-burner. The son says -- convincingly -- that the shortened sentence was ordered after prosecutors not only misrepresented that the 19-year-old first offender was the ringleader of the cross-burning affair, but also successfully plea-bargained probation for the actual ringleader, a 17-year-old with several "priors." It was, the son argued, a matter of proportionality.

And on it went. A controversial law journal piece on interracial marriage was, says Chip, a law school assignment. Supposedly negative comments on aspects of the Voting Rights Act were, rather, "a classic criticism by one branch of another for not doing its job." Briefs drawn for the segregationist Mississippi Sovereignty Commission were just legal draftsmanship.

There was no racial animus in any of this, the son insisted when we spoke -- as he has been insisting wherever he can get a black audience to listen. Father and son recently sat down with the black caucus of the Mississippi Legislature. State Rep. Phillip West (D-Natchez), the caucus chairman, said that the meeting was useful but that the caucus has not decided to act on it. West declined to say whether he thought Judge Pickering is getting a bad rap.

Will Colom, a black lawyer from Columbus and a formerly politically active Republican, was less reticent. "I knew Charles back in the 1970s, though I haven't had much recent interaction with him, and I can tell you for a fact that there were three white Republicans who were vocal about doing the right thing with regard to race, and especially about making sure the state Republican Party was racially inclusive. They were Gil Carmichael (a former federal railroad administrator), Thad Cochran (Mississippi's other U.S. senator) -- and Charles Pickering.

"There was a clear divide -- and I guess there still is -- between people like these and, on the other side, Republicans like Trent Lott and [former governor] Kirk Fordice."

This appraisal will warm the cockles of Chip Pickering's heart.

This, also from Colom, won't: "I have no desire for him to be on the 5th Circuit bench. He's just too conservative for me. But to say he is a bigot -- well, that's just wrong."

Why is the son putting so much on the line for his father's promotion? Is he merely hoping to vindicate the family name? Or does he smell a possible Supreme Court seat?

"My father will turn 66 in May," he said. "This was to have been the last honor in the last phase of a long public service career. But it's now much bigger than that. I want to defend his record, of course, but I'm hoping we can use this unpleasant affair to redefine us as Mississippians, black and white.

"What holds our state back more than anything now is our image on race. I would really like to show that we Mississippians can come together. And if we can come together on this, there is no doubt that we could come together on other issues, including education and economic development, which our people really need."