"Lift Every Voice: Turning A Civil Rights Setback Into A New Vision of Social Justice," by Lani Guinier. Simon & Schuster. $25. I don't know Lani Guinier, but I had recently arrived in the Washington bureau of a Detroit newspaper when her nomination as assistant attorney general for civil rights was announced. We have mutual friends and acquaintances, many from her days as a law clerk for a federal judge in Detroit, so her nomination was of more than passing - or strictly professional - interest.
I liked and admired what I knew of the woman - and do even more so after reading her new book. Rather than having been embittered by her public humiliation at the hands of her law school buddy Bill Clinton, Guinier seems to have been empowered, "freed from an obligation to be a silent partner in what I now saw as a moribund public culture," she writes.
Sadly but with some detachment, she recounts her experience. We've all heard it before: Friendship and principle will take a backseat to politics and power in the nation's capital. That similar - if not so dramatic - tales of disappointment and disillusionment with the administration are heard with some regularity makes her story no less disturbing.
Consider, for example, her recollections early in the book on a party attended by Bill and Hillary Clinton the first Saturday night after his inauguration. She describes the jokes, the food, Hillary's headband and scarf, then goes on to write:
"In his moment of public triumph, Bill Clinton had simply left his grand House to celebrate in the modest home of an honest-to-goodness black friend. We were impressed. We knew that Bill Clinton was probably the very first president of the United States to have enough black friends to hold a party, not just convene a photo opportunity."
That party set the stage for the disbelief Guinier and many of those close to her felt in the period immediately before and after JTC the president withdrew her nomination, denying her the hearing she so badly wanted.
There's a richness of detail in "Lift Every Voice" that makes a reader share Guinier's pain.
The book may be at its best when she reviews the distortions of her academic writings by ideological opponents, aided by a lazy Washington press corps. Along the way, she makes the strongest case yet, devoid of footnotes and legal jargon, for the reasonableness of the solutions she explored in law review articles: that there can be win-win solutions that protect minority rights in highly polarized political situations.
These solutions involving proportional representation earned her such nicknames as Clinton's Quota Queen, ignoring the fact that her ideas were far more complex than that and had been tried on a limited scale with success in this country and elsewhere.
"Lift Every Voice" tries to set the record straight. In the course of that effort, Guinier reveals herself to be the kind of lawyer, thinker and human being we should want in government service.
Jacqueline Thomas is editorial page editor at The Sun. Prior t working at The Sun she was washington bureau chief of the Detroit News. She began her career as a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, where she worked as a reporter for 11 years. She has also worked at the Louisville Times and the Courier-Journal.
Pub Date: 4/19/98