whom President George W. Bush appointed as vice chairwoman of the U.S.
Commission on Civil Rights, Abigail Thernstrom has a reputation as a
tough conservative critic of affirmative action and politically correct
positions on race.
But when it comes to the investigation that the Republican-dominated commission is now conducting into the Justice Department’s
handling of an alleged incident of voter intimidation involving the New
Black Panther Party — a controversy that has consumed conservative
media in recent months — Thernstrom has made a dramatic break from her
“This doesn’t have to do with the Black Panthers; this has to do with
their fantasies about how they could use this issue to topple the
[Obama] administration,” said Thernstrom, who said members of the
commission voiced their political aims “in the initial discussions” of
the Panther case last year.
“My fellow conservatives on the commission had this wild notion they could bring Eric Holder down and really damage the president,” Thernstrom said in an interview with POLITICO.
The criticism has focused attention not just on Thernstrom, a scholar at
the American Enterprise Institute, but on the partisan nature of the
Civil Rights Commission and on a story that, like the controversy over
the anti-poverty group ACORN, has raged almost completely outside the mainstream media.
The facts of the case are relatively simple. Two men were captured on a
video standing outside a polling place in a black Philadelphia
neighborhood on Election Day in 2008. One of the men had a nightstick,
if an unclear agenda — though a member of the black nationalist New
Black Panther Party, he had earlier professed loathing for the
Democratic "puppet" candidate, Barack Obama, who went on to
overwhelmingly carry that precinct.
Three Republican poll monitors filed complaints of intimidation — itself
a federal crime — but no voters attested to being turned away. The
Justice Department, while Bush
was still president, investigated the incident and later, after Obama
took office, decided that "the facts and the law did not support
pursuing" the claims against the party and against a second, unarmed
man, Justice spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said.
But the issue galvanized long-running conservative complaints —
including by former Bush administration lawyers — that the government
doesn’t take black racism seriously, and the incident has become a huge
source of controversy among conservatives.
Fox News and other conservative media outlets have turned the Justice
Department’s handling of the case into the subject of the sort of
intense, contained interest that’s becoming increasingly common in an
age of polarized and ideological media.
The liberal group Media Matters
has counted 95 segments on Fox at least partially devoted to the story,
much of it driven by “America Live” host Megyn Kelly, who focused on it
during 45 segments, including one that discussed whether Fox’s own
coverage had been racist.
Fox News did not return calls asking for comment on its coverage.
the wide exposure given the controversy, said one member of the Civil
Rights Commission, was reason enough for the Justice Department to
pursue the case aggressively.
“Millions of people saw the clip on Fox News and YouTube,” said Todd
Gaziano, a commissioner who has been the driving force behind the
commission’s investigation. “Any reasonable American knows this is voter
intimidation. And so the dismissal itself of an infamous case where
there’s footage is more damaging to people’s perception of the rule of
law than a dismissal when nobody’s paying attention.”
The commission chairman, Gerald Reynolds, said Thernstrom is attacking
the commission out of pique dating back to a dispute about organizing a
conference scheduled for this fall. “The allegation that there’s any
interest in bringing down the Obama administration is false — and it’s a
lot more; it’s personal and petty.”
Thernstrom, who had openly mocked the commission’s hearing on the case, put her dissent in writing last week in National Review, where she said the incident was “racial theater of very minor importance” and “small potatoes.”
And other conservatives have weighed in on her side.
“There are more important issues to go after Attorney General Holder on
even in terms of the voting rights section itself,” said Linda Chavez,
president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, who was staff director of
the Civil Rights Commission in the Reagan years and called the video
“damning” but relatively minor.
“Because it’s 24-hour news and cable news and Fox News — this is the
kind of story, like the ACORN story, that’s got pictures that you can
run over and over again,” said Chavez, who noted that she’s a Fox News
“When it comes to race, the right, like the left, can't resist getting
hung up with trivia and sideshows,” said Amy Wax, a law professor at the
University of Pennsylvania and the author of an influential book
arguing that discrimination against blacks is no longer very meaningful.
“How do the antics of these two Black Panthers make a difference?”
A leading writer on the widely read HotAir marveled
at Fox’s eagerness to offer a platform to the New Black Panther Party’s
ranting chairman, Malik Shabazz, crediting it to the fact that the
“outrageous outrage he provokes is good for ratings and partly because,
as here, his demagoguery necessarily casts the host in the role of
Spokesman for Decency."
And Doug Mataconis of the conservative blog Outside the Beltway called the flap “much ado about very, very little.”
Their doubts — and the on-air qualms of some Fox contributors — have not diminished conservative outrage.
The Panthers “were there to intimidate blacks. To keep them voting for
Obama and other left-wing liberal Democrats,” said Roy Innis, chairman
of the Congress of Racial Equality.
“The Obama folks should realize that they are enabling [the idea]
that rules of civility are different for black people. It's a tired
idea, and America is less tolerant of it by the year,” said the
Manhattan Institute’s John McWhorter, who simultaneously dismissed the
Panthers as “a bunch of grown men medicated on photos of Huey Newton
playing cops and robbers.”
A chief casualty of the dispute may be the commission itself, which was
established in 1957 and has been long known as a partisan redoubt; when
it was dominated by Democratic appointees, it spent much of the Bush
years investigating allegations that he had stolen the 2000 election.
The commissioners serve six-year terms, and though only four can belong
to one political party, sympathetic independents can round out sharply
partisan majorities. The president appoints four commissioners, and
congressional leaders appoint the other four.
The current controversy, said Chavez, the agency’s conservative former
staff director, is more evidence that “the commission has outlived its
But even as the conservative commissioners debate their differences,
another clear casualty of the debate has been the vestiges of a national
Many people who do not watch Fox News or follow conservative media have
never heard of the issue. The disconnect was painfully clear to Rep.
Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), who, when asked about the controversy at a
recent town hall meeting in his district, admitted to constituents that
he’d never heard of it.
“What this shows is just how polarized we’ve become as a country,” Sherman told POLITICO.
Sherman said he thought the Justice Department had “mishandled” the
Panther case but blamed what he called the “manipulative cowards at Fox
News” for blowing it out of proportion.
“I grew up during the Vietnam War, and you had people on both sides, but
they were getting their facts from the same place,” Sherman said. “We
have polarized political parties and, for the first time in 100 years,
polarized journalism as well.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified the
Congress of Racial Equality official who commented on the New Panther
Party. The quote should have been attributed to Roy Innis, who is the
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the
think tank with which Abigail Thernstrom is now affiliated. She is a
scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.