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Behind the 'Lani Guinier Mask' : Politics: Months after her nomination ordeal, she says the public still doesn't know who she really is.

December 07, 1993|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Given what has happened, it's surprising that Lani Guinier even opens her hotel room door for a reporter who wants to know the personal side of her cataclysmic experience. What is it like to be plucked from obscurity, made famous overnight, publicly humiliated and then dropped from the highest parapet of power--without a parachute?

In part, Guinier blames shabby journalism for her botched nomination to head the civil rights division of the U.S. Justice Department. The media let her opponents define her and misrepresent her ideas, she says, and reporters didn't seek unbiased sources to learn what her peers think about her work.

Even after all the commotion--"for a while there, my face was on TV and on newspaper front pages every single day"--she sees herself a "shadowy persona" to the public; a known name, but an unknown entity. A mask with no person behind it. In the entire six weeks, from her day of nomination to the day it was withdrawn, she never spoke publicly.

On her way to California from Philadelphia last weekend, an airport baggage-handler stopped, stared at her and asked: "Aren't you the woman Clinton dumped? I never forget a face."

Guinier has said she was not ready to talk, but here to accept the ACLU's Bill of Rights award, she seems willing to share at least a few thoughts with an unknown reporter who might skewer her again.

This says something about the upbeat and guileless nature of the former nominee, whose own mother tells her she was "too naive and trusting" to survive the process. President Clinton nominated her and then, amid controversy over her writings, withdrew her name before her confirmation hearing, before she could present her own defense.

Guinier is surviving very well, she says, her dignity intact. She has support from friends and colleagues, with whom she can discuss her ordeal. But her husband, Nolan Bowie, an artist and communications professor at Temple University, has fewer such outlets and is still very angry, she says. And her 75-year-old mother . . . here Guinier's composure dissolves. Tears suddenly flood her cheeks.

"My mother has had a terrible time. It's taken a physical toll on her. She's 75, and at that age stress affects you physically. She feels that to be humiliated and publicly tortured" is wrong, Guinier says. "She used to write these very angry letters to the President, and I would tell her not to send them. . . . I think she feels they took advantage of me."

*

The nomination at first seemed a brilliant stroke. Guinier would be, Clinton proudly announced, the first practicing civil rights attorney to head the department that enforces civil rights laws on employment, education, housing and voting.

What's more, her supporters said, Guinier was respected as an innovative thinker, an advocate of racial healing, a brilliant litigator, an integrating and cohesive force in her field.

In a matter of weeks, however, Guinier saw her public image change into "Loony Lani," "a madwoman," "quota queen," "breathtakingly radical," "anti-democratic" and "a reverse racist"--to name just a few of the printed epithets hurled relentlessly until her nomination was squelched.

Clinton withdrew her name after belatedly reading one of her law journal articles, which he said contained ideas he could not embrace.

"I don't think he read it with an effort to understand my work, but with a desire to understand the controversy surrounding it," Guinier says. "If he were trying to understand my work, he wouldn't have read it on a short helicopter trip to Fredericksburg, Md., or wherever he was going. To understand what an academic writes, you need to set apart a reasonable amount of time. I don't think 15 minutes will do it."

Guinier's opponents quoted from articles she wrote for academic journals in which she seemed to argue for guarantees of political power to minority groups. She also questioned whether majority rule in a race-conscious society can truly be fair to minorities.

"I don't think anyone can understand complex ideas about political participation by referring to one sentence or one footnote in a 77-page article. If it were that simple, I wouldn't have written 77 pages--I'd have written one sentence," she says. "What happened is that they took one segment and examined it as if it represented the totality of my thought."

Guinier says she didn't defend herself because "I was asked by the White House not to discuss it . . . not even to speak to civic organizations. It wasn't just that I was asked not to speak to the press; I was asked not to speak, period."

*

Guinier doesn't back down from anything she wrote, some of which she concedes could be considered controversial. A book of her writings--the ones that caused so much trouble--will be published in February, she says, and citizens can decide for themselves how to interpret her thoughts.

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