The Magazine

Berry Bad Behavior

Dec 24, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 15 • By DAVID TELL, FOR THE EDITORS
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LAST WEEK the White House made a down payment on President Bush's promise that due-process protections would be extended even to the most fanatic current enemies of U.S. policy. No, we don't mean the Justice Department's December 11 indictment of Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged "twentieth man" in the New York and Washington terrorist plots. We have in mind, instead, a move announced the day before: the administration's decision to forgo a military tribunal in favor of regular federal district court proceedings against Mary Frances Berry.

Ms. Berry has lately holed herself up at 624 Ninth Street, N.W., in Washington, D.C., headquarters of the radical cell she leads, otherwise known as the "U.S. Commission on Civil Rights." From there she has vowed to resist the authority of American law by any means necessary. Which is lunacy, really: This is just a personnel dispute, after all, and Berry's position is plainly illegal. We'd say the Bush administration has responded to her provocations with altogether remarkable restraint. That Berry is being supported in her war against the government by congressional Democrats, on the other hand, is . . . well, we're not sure what to make of that, but it's nothing to be proud of.

Before we get to the particulars, some necessary background: Congress chartered the Civil Rights Commission in 1957 as an executive branch "clearinghouse" on American race relations. Under its authorizing statute, the commission was to deliver a report on that subject by the end of 1959, and two months later it would "cease to exist." The report was completed on schedule. But the "cease to exist" part was delayed for . . . well, several decades, actually. During which time the agency did a slow dissolve from irrelevance to incompetence to outright embarrassment--its "research" increasingly indistinguishable from interest-group agitprop.

By the early 1980s, the commission having long since outlived its usefulness, the Reagan administration proposed finally to suspend its operations. But a Democratic Congress seized on that plan as evidence of alleged Republican hostility to racial and ethnic minorities and women. Cowed by the charge, the Reagan White House effected a full-bore retreat and approved a humiliating 1983 "compromise" in which the Civil Rights Commission was deliberately insulated against future such threats to its "independence." Specifically, the administrative structure of the agency was amended by law to provide for a strictly bipartisan group of eight commissioners, four each appointed by the president and Congress, and all serving staggered, six-year terms.

It is important to point out, for reasons that will become obvious in a moment, that the idea for this scheme of staggered terms, according to an official House of Representatives report on the 1983 "reauthorization," came from Mary Frances Berry, a 1980 Carter appointee to the commission.

Mary Berry is a freakish anomaly in the permanent-insider culture of Washington politics. For one thing, she has managed to survive on the federal payroll through a quarter century and five presidencies despite having accumulated a record of rhetorical irresponsibility, devoid of compensating accomplishment, that would make Al Sharpton blush. Furthermore, Berry is widely loathed for her propensity to call people who frustrate her whims "racists" or "Uncle Toms." Character flaws like these ordinarily make for a justly abbreviated political career. But Democratic party leaders have consistently ignored this rule in Berry's case, propping her up on the apparent assumption that her continued presence on the Civil Rights Commission does them some partisan good.

They are quite wrong about that, we think; the only thing Democrats have earned from their alliance with Mary Frances Berry is shared responsibility for the abject collapse of an already dysfunctional federal agency. Since being made chairman by President Clinton in 1993--against the stated wishes of her commission colleagues--Berry has run the place like a third-world potentate, employing "haphazard or nonexistent" management rules, in the words of a devastating 1997 General Accounting Office audit, to crush even the mildest dissent. True professionals do not flourish in such an environment; turnover among senior civil servants on the commission's staff has been epidemic. And, consequently, what limited work the agency has managed to produce these past few years reflects little more than Mary Frances Berry's defective personality: her peculiar combination of single-minded extremism and rank ineptitude.