For young Alabama lawyer Brett Talley, his withdrawal from consideration for a federal judgeship should not be the last word on his promising career.
With the right combination of graciousness and gumption, Talley can rise above this setback — just as a then-40-year-old judicial nominee named Jeff Sessions did when his nomination was derailed in 1986.
When I wrote two weeks ago that Talley probably ought to withdraw, I was merely urging him to recognize political reality. In the year of or immediately after the Charlottesville riots, no nominee of President Trump could possibly be confirmed once it surfaced that the nominee tried to split hairs about the Ku Klux Klan. In the year of or immediately after so many national controversies involving Alabama figures (Sessions, Luther Strange, Roy Moore), no Alabama nominee with so many small strikes against him could earn Senate approval.
Talley would have been horrendously vilified in floor debate, with no chance to defend himself and no real hope of winning.
Now, though, Talley should break the senseless tradition whereby judicial nominees speak for themselves only during their confirmation hearings, including the forswearing of comment if their nominations fail. Instead, he should use the occasion to make a public statement, even hold a press conference, that helps clear the air and reintroduces himself to a broader audience.
Before I elaborate, please allow this digression. In the 1980s I watched quite closely as three of the men I admire most, including my father, all were publicly named (at different times) as the choice of President Reagan for a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals judgeship, only to see unfair, sub-rosa politics lead to their withdrawals. As I particularly witnessed in my father’s case, the experience is incredibly painful, and feels quite embarrassing even if no shame has been merited. So I get it. I get that the first reaction to one’s own withdrawal is to just crawl into one’s own shell for a while.
In this case, however, Talley can change the script — not for this particular judicial opportunity, but for his future.
Imagine if Talley conducted a press conference in which, with wistfulness rather than anger, he expressed regret for the miscues that made his confirmation infeasible. He could recount his otherwise distinguished record, describe a deep reverence for the law and for our constitutional system, and explain just how personally invasive and demanding the nomination process has become. Without whining or making excuses, he could elucidate the reality that the advent of social media has made it a monumental task to produce every scrap of public communication someone has ever engaged in.
Crucially, of course, he should explain the circumstances and thought processes — or lack of thought — that led him, under a thinly veiled pseudonym, to write an online comment defending the “original” KKK and one of its leaders, former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Historically dubious at very best, the claim that even the earliest Klan had honorable intentions is toxic in almost any modern public forum.
Yet surely Talley can explain what he meant, in a way understandable by the public even if not acceptable for confirmation purposes by a majority of senators. And surely, if somehow his original distinction — no matter how ham-handed — had been intended to highlight the dangers of bad racial intentions, then he could also give examples of some efforts of his own to bridge racial divides or combat racial injustices.
Again, when combined with other small question marks in his record, none of these explanations could have secured him confirmation from a narrowly divided Senate. But they certainly could humanize him, demonstrate graciousness and judicial temperament, and make him a sympathetic (and even admirable) figure — thus aiding any of his future professional or public endeavors.
As I wrote in my column two weeks ago, Talley appears to be a brilliant attorney with plenty of “exemplary” experience. And, to repeat: “In and of itself, one truly stupid [blog] post shouldn’t ruin a man’s career. But at age 36, Talley has plenty of time to continue to build his resume, put youthful folly behind him – and reassure people that his emotions involving racial issues aren’t indicative of bias or bigotry. The withdrawal of Talley’s nomination would not say that he is a bad lawyer or bad man.”
A public statement or press conference could begin the process of driving home those points, and set Brett Talley up for a brighter future.
Yellowhammer Contributing Editor Quin Hillyer, of Mobile, also is a Contributing Editor for National Review Online, and is the author of Mad Jones, Heretic, a satirical literary novel published in the fall of 2017.