Another dictator toppled (here at home)

Posted: Dec 10, 2004 12:00 AM

Mary Frances Berry, chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, is resigning. Those scratch marks on the floor may be from her fingernails as they dragged her from the building by her feet. Berry has been a member of the commission for 24 of its 47 years -- a record probably unmatched even in Washington, D.C., a city of sinecures.

 She isn't exactly going quietly. Until a few days ago, Berry was preparing for a legal fight with the Bush administration over the duration of her term. She insisted that her tenure did not end until Jan. 21 -- though her contract specifically states that her last day was Dec. 5. She now acknowledges that a legal battle over a stint of six weeks might be a little much.

 Berry departs with allegations of mismanagement swirling about her head. The commission is small potatoes, Washington-wise, with a budget of only $9 million and a staff of only 70. But no one knows how that money has been spent over the past 12 years, while Berry has presided with an iron hand. Peter Kirsanow, a black conservative member of the commission, writes that the management of the agency is "completely dysfunctional." Record-keeping is said to be "indecipherable," and there hasn't been an independent audit (required by law) for 12 years.

 The mismanagement was not limited to money. Berry ran the place like a Soviet commissar, holding all the levers of power and ruthlessly stifling dissent. Berry ensured that her personal stamp was on every document issued by the commission. Even when she was in the minority of commission members, she would manage to suppress the majority's view and publish her own.

 A recent example is currently on the website ( Titled "Civil Rights Leaders Appeal to President Bush to Help Heal American Divide," the statement goes on to charge that President Bush "has failed to exhibit leadership on pressing civil rights issues. ... Sadly, the spiraling demise of hope for social justice and healing has deepened over the past four years. ..." This "report" was rejected by commission's majority. But there it is, front and center, on the website.

 This is no surprise to those who've been following the commission's work. Under Berry's direction, the Civil Rights Commission published an utterly fallacious finding about the 2000 election in Florida, concluding that "countless Floridians ... were denied their right to vote."

 When Commissioners Russell Redenbaugh and Abigail Thernstrom issued a minority report showing, among other things, that the commission had not interviewed a single Floridian who was denied the opportunity to vote, Berry ruled that the minority report could not be considered an official commission document because they had used the services (free) of a scholar named John Lott. It was not permitted, Berry asserted, to use the services of outside analysts -- even for free.

 The Civil Rights Commission was established during the Eisenhower administration as a government watchdog to oversee Negro progress as the battles for voting rights, equal education and full citizenship were gearing up. In the 1950s and '60s, white racism truly was the greatest obstacle to black progress.

 The world has changed since then. Thernstrom, a conservative commission member, has written (with her husband Stephen) two scholarly and impassioned books about civil rights. The second, called "No Excuses," makes the case that the greatest obstacle to black progress today (and the Thernstroms, unlike the Berrys of this world, are careful to recognize the enormous progress our society has made) is public education.

 Yet Berry, who favors the teachers unions and affirmative action, is labeled a civil rights advocate, while Thernstrom is dismissed, as in The Washington Post story about the commission turnover, as a "white conservative."

 Berry ruled the Civil Rights Commission like a dictator, bullying her allies and undermining her foes through means fair and foul. When President Bush appointed Kirsanow, Berry refused to seat him until a court ordered her to do so. She stood for the principle that no fact should stand in the way of her moral posturing. She got away with it for way too long.