- The Washington Times - Monday, December 13, 2004

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

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

Miss Berry departs with mismanagement accusations swirling about her. The commission is small potatoes, Washington-wise, with a budget of only $9 million and a staff of 70. But no one knows how that money has been spent over the last 12 years, while Miss Berry presided with an iron hand.

Peter Kirsanow, a black conservative commission member, says the agency management is “completely dysfunctional.” Recordkeeping is called “indecipherable,” and there has been no independent audit (required by law) for 12 years.

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

A recent example is on the Web site (usccr.gov). Titled “Civil Rights Leaders Appeal to President Bush to Help Heal American Divide,” the statement charges Mr. 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 majority. But there it is, front and center, on the Web site.

This is no surprise to those who have followed the commission’s work. Under Miss Berry’s direction, the Civil Rights Commission published an utterly fallacious finding about the 2000 election in Florida, 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 denied the opportunity to vote, Miss Berry ruled 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, Miss Berry asserted, to use outside analysts’ services — even for free.

The Civil Rights Commission was set up during the Eisenhower administration to provide government oversight of black progress as the battles for voting rights, equal education and full citizenship geared up. In the 1950s and ‘60s, white racism truly was the greatest obstacle to black progress.

The world has changed since then. Mrs. 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 the greatest obstacle to black progress now (and the Thernstroms, unlike Berry, are careful to recognize the enormous progress our society has made) is public education.

Yet Miss Berry, who favors the teachers unions and affirmative action, is labeled a civil rights advocate, while Mrs. Thernstrom is dismissed, as in The Washington Post article on the commission turnover, as a “white conservative.”

Miss 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 Mr. Kirsanow, Miss 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.

Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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