Jeff Sessions’s Redemption Story

It’s an unlikely second act for our new attorney general, who was nearly just a political cautionary tale.

Mike Segar / Reuters

The story of our lives is often cruel and unfair. Bill Buckner, a great baseball player, is mostly remembered for allowing a ground ball to roll between his legs in game six of the 1986 World Series.

On rare occasions, people can flip the script and write their own redemption song. When the United States Senate voted Wednesday evening to confirm our new attorney general in the wake of a nasty confirmation battle, the story to me was this: Jeff Sessions defied the odds, came back from what could have been a career-ending blow, and emerged as perhaps the most unlikely U.S. attorney general in recent history.

Sessions’s road from Alabama to the Department of Justice was long and winding. “There was a time when the distinguished Senator from Alabama was known simply as ‘Buddy,’” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in a statement. “The product of a small town called Hybart. The son of a country-store owner. The inheritor of modest beginnings.”

Many people come from humble beginnings. A more likely scenario is that Sessions might have achieved moderate success, only to have gone down in history as a footnote: a dire warning that the worst days of our lives often define us.

In 1986, Sessions was a 39-year-old U.S. attorney in Alabama when he was nominated to serve as a federal judge. However, two of his colleagues testified that Sessions allegedly said racially insensitive things―accusations that cost him the approval by the U.S. Senate required for the position. Some of the things he allegedly said are unverifiable hearsay; others (if they occurred) were likely bad jokes. Sessions does concede that he might have said the NAACP was un-American or Communist.

Either way, it’s fair to say that this was not helpful to someone with national career aspirations in politics in the late 20th and early 21st century. There are few things in life that are as disqualifying as being labeled a racist. A 39-year old Jeff Sessions might well have soberly looked at this situation and concluded that a future in public service was a fool’s errand—that he had become a caricature of a Southern politician.

It’s impossible to know what really happened 30 years ago, but what we do know is that—no matter what you think of Sessions’s brand of populist conservative politics—he went on to become a generally well-liked, affable, and surprisingly bipartisan member of the U.S. Senate.

We have 30 years of his subsequent behavior since to examine, and to judge him on. A year ago, he and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker teamed up to award the Congressional Gold Medal to Selma marchers. Booker changed his tune this year and decided to break precedent and testify against his Senate colleague. But a year ago, he had nothing but praise for the man.

“Liberals may not like his record, but nothing that he has said or done that suggests their thesis: That he was just an Alabama redneck,” says Ken Cuccinelli, the former attorney general of Virginia.

It’s not like this was some devious and elaborate plan hatched by Jeff Sessions: “Bide your time, Jeffrey. Climb the slippery pole of politics. Get elected to the Senate, and avoid saying or doing anything remotely racist for 31, or so, years. And then, having accomplished that, all you have to do is manage to get a thrice-married casino magnate from New York City elected president, and you’re in!”

One of the consequences of electing an unlikely president is that you get an unlikely team of advisers and Cabinet picks. To be sure, some of Trump’s Cabinet-level picks have been surprisingly mainstream and conventional. However, the odds of any mainstream Republican president selecting Sessions as attorney general are astronomical.

This story might be many things, but it is at least partially a story of resilience, perseverance, and overcoming extraordinary odds. It is just the sort of heroic and inspirational story that might be touted were Sessions a social justice warrior about to join a liberal presidential administration. But it is not the narrative likely to emerge about a guy with the middle name of Beauregard—who has dedicated much of the last few years to fighting immigration reform efforts in the U.S. Senate.

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America is a land of reinvention, second chances. It’s a place where a small-town boy can grow up to become the attorney general of the United States. No matter what you might think about Sessions’s politics (and I haven’t always been a big fan), that’s a story worth telling.