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Senator Kennedy’s “Unhinged” Red-Baiting: What Is the Matter With These People?

Just when you think the Republican Party has scraped the bottom of the barrel, it breaks through into the slime pit below.

Senator John Kennedy, looks on as the nominee to be the Comptroller of the Currency, Saule Omarova, testifies before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.
Jim Watson/Getty Images
Senator John Kennedy looks on as the nominee to be the comptroller of the currency, Saule Omarova, testifies before the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee.

Perhaps John Neely Kennedy of Louisiana, ranking member of the Economic Policy Subcommittee of the Senate Banking Committee, was auditioning for a gig on the Comedy Channel when, at a hearing on Thursday, he ripped into Cornell law professor Saule T. Omarova, President Biden’s nominee to head the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, or OCC, the country’s top bank regulator. 

“I don’t mean any disrespect,” the senator intoned, “but I don’t know whether to call you ‘professor’ or ‘comrade.’” Omarova kept a straight face as she replied, “I am not a Communist.” She was born and raised in the Soviet Union, in what is now Kazakhstan.

To appreciate the full import of Kennedy’s contribution to “the world’s greatest deliberative body” (not to quote the Comedy Channel), here’s how he sounds when he means no disrespect. The “professor or comrade” bit made the cable news wheel, but there was more, much more. I quote from his office’s lead press release of the day:

Kennedy: There was a group called the Young Communists, and you are a member, is that right?

Omarova: I’m not exactly sure which group you’re referring to.

Kennedy: Well, the formal name of it is the Leninist Communist Young Union of the Russian Federation, and it’s also known as the Leninist Komsomol of the Russian Federation. And it’s commonly referred to as the Young Communists. Were you a member? … Have you resigned?

Omarova: From the—

Kennedy: From the Young Communists.

Omarova: You grow out of it with age automatically.

Kennedy: Did you send them a letter though, resigning?

Omarova: Senator, this was many, many years ago. As far as I remember how the Soviet Union worked was at certain age, you automatically stop being—

Kennedy: Could you look at your records and see if you can find a copy?

The previous day, Omarova was honored by a Wall Street Journal editorial for supporting “a long-term national strategy of economic development and reconstruction.” Omarova has supported a National Investment Authority to further that end. She has dared support a Green New Deal. Sounds like a Commie to Senator Kennedy, who would assuredly be rejected by the Comedy Channel. Too retro. Just when you think the Republican Party has scraped the bottom of the barrel, it breaks through into the slime pit below.

Actually, Senator Kennedy blows hot and cold on Russia. In 2019, he surmised that Ukraine, not Russia, hacked the Democratic National Committee in 2016. Still, on hearing Senator Kennedy launch his inquisition into the childhood experience of Professor Omarova, Senator Sherrod Brown called Kennedy “unhinged.” Joe Scarborough, on MSNBC, no fan of the old Soviet Union, called his intervention “gross.”

It might also be of some interest that Senator Kennedy grew up in Amite County, a heartland of Jim Crow. His website does not record when his family moved to Louisiana, where he graduated from high school. He has not produced any evidence of his views of racial segregation in Mississippi and Louisiana during his early years.

So we do not have his views of the significance of the fact that, in the 1960s, of the 5,500 African Americans in Amite County, only one was registered to vote there; or his understanding that in 1961, a Black dairy farmer and local NAACP leader was murdered in Amite County, before many witnesses, by a state legislator; or that, in a courtroom full of armed whites, an all-white coroner’s jury found the killer not guilty on the ground of self-defense; or that, as late as 1963, lynch mobs were not unknown there; or that, in 1964, a witness to the murder was murdered, and that no one was prosecuted.

Perhaps he will soon gratify students of history by scouring his records to produce evidence of his earlier views of racial segregation.

It will, at least, not be hard for him to find evidence that, in hearings last February on President Biden’s nomination of Deborah Haaland as secretary of the interior, he called Haaland “a neo-socialist, left-of-Lenin whack job.” He apologized later for using the latter phrase, explaining that he had been searching for another word. He has also said of Speaker Nancy Pelosi: “It must suck to be that dumb.”

Last January, Senator Kennedy, ever preoccupied with election integrity, declared he would vote against certifying the electoral votes for the 2020 presidential election. Should Donald Trump be reelected president in 2024, you know who’s camping out to be first in line to be named secretary of civility and brains.