Jewish World Review August 13, 2003 /15 Menachem-Av 5763

Paul Greenberg

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Familiarity breeds respect | The dog days, they're called, this time of year when the days grow hotter and tempers shorter. It's a good time to sit back, have some iced tea and think on why some political disputes don't ignite.

Consider: Here in Arkansas, a Republican nominee for the judiciary is being backed by both the state's Democratic senators.

It can happen when the nominee is someone like J. Leon Holmes. He's a scholar and a gentleman - and a natural for a judicial appointment. But his confirmation has been held up for months now, which must be something of a record for a district judgeship.

What's the problem? He's under attack from all the usual, vehement quarters with all the usual weapons - smears, accusations, quotes out of context and general ill will. Why? Because of his strong religious beliefs, which include a deep respect for life and opposition to abortion.

In short, he's violated a political litmus test and sacrament: the national Democratic Party's unquestioning faith in Roe v. Wade. Not only must a nominee recognize its legality, but he must never, never question its morality.

Maybe if Leon Holmes had just kept his convictions to himself, there would be no problem. But like any good citizen, he's spoken up, and that's what his critics can't forgive. So they've gone rummaging through various statements he's made over the last couple of decades in search of something to distort. It's not just religious folks who can be driven to extremes by their prejudices.

But up close and personal here in Arkansas, the agitprop out of the Beltway doesn't seem to be having much effect. Indeed, when it comes to Leon Holmes' nomination, there's been a show of bipartisan amity.

Why would the state's two Democratic senators, Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, support Mr. Holmes' confirmation? Because they know him as an honorable advocate learned in the law, and a man of character. And they know he would honor his oath as a judge to interpret the law impartially, whatever his personal beliefs.

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Arkansas' senators haven't swallowed the caricature of Leon Holmes being spread so assiduously by his ideologically driven opponents. In his case, familiarity breeds respect.

It's hard to see how anyone who's ever had any dealings with Mr. Holmes, as I have, would have anything but respect for the man. (In the past, he's been a counsel for the newspaper I work for, and you really get to know someone when you're the client in the attorney-client relationship.)

Yet both senators from Arkansas still hang back when it comes to endorsing a similar nominee for the federal judiciary from Alabama. He's Bill Pryor, attorney general of Alabama and another Roman Catholic. Despite the Constitution's ban on any religious test for office, both senators have gone along with those opposing Mr. Pryor's confirmation. Even though he's compiled a record of competence and fairness in office. Smears are easier to credit when you don't know the victim very well.

What his critics really seem to have against Bill Pryor isn't so much his religious beliefs as his refusal to disavow them. Or disguise them. Or to grovel when quizzed about them. Which made his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee the other day refreshing. Bill Pryor refused to apologize for his moral conviction that abortion is wrong.

His clear answers brought back something Abraham Lincoln said in one of his debates with Judge Douglas: It was not enough, said Mr. Lincoln, for opponents of slavery like himself to agree that slavery was legal; it was also demanded of them that they stop saying it was wrong, and that Abraham Lincoln could not do.

Yes, Bill Pryor would interpret the law to the best of his impartial ability if confirmed, but he wasn't about to hide his convictions, or kowtow to the bullies on the Judiciary Committee. His critics will doubtless try to misconstrue his honesty, too, and paint it as some kind of disqualification.

But in a small, wonderfully close-knit state like Arkansas, it's not easy to tar a good man; too many people know him. The ideal target of demagoguery needs to be remote, abstract - not a real human being, not someone people have come to know and respect, not someone like Leon Holmes. It's a lot easier to paint an attorney general from another state in false colors. He's not as well known in these parts.

Contrary to the old saying, maybe it's not familiarity but distance that breeds contempt.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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