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Henningsen: An Honorable Man

07/19/11 7:55AM By Vic Henningsen
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(HOST) Few of us know anything about Richard H. Poff, a former Virginia congressman and state supreme court justice, but historian and commentator Vic Henningsen thinks that more of us should.

(HENNINGSEN) A man who long labored in a dishonorable cause, Richard Poff demonstrated that he could face his behavior squarely and publicly name it for what it was.

In the days of the solid Democratic South, Poff was that rare bird, a southern Republican in Congress, serving for almost twenty years after being elected in the Eisenhower sweep of 1952. A stalwart defender of the South's racial status quo, he signed the so-called "Southern Manifesto" of 1956, when Southern congressmen and senators united against school desegregation, and he opposed every civil rights bill of the 1960's. By 1971 he was ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee and a staunch supporter of President Richard Nixon's "law-and-order" social agenda.

When Justice Hugo Black died in September of that year, Poff was widely regarded as Nixon's leading candidate for the court's so-called "Southern seat." Called to account for his opposition to civil rights, Poff gave a remarkably candid explanation: he feared losing his seat in Congress if he voted his conscience. Then he went further, baring a tormented soul.

"I can only say that segregation is wrong today, it was wrong yesterday," he said. "Segregation was never right. But," he went on, "it is one of the most lamentable frailties of mankind that when one's wrong is most grievous, his self-justification is most passionate, perhaps in the pitiful hope that the fervor of his self-defense will somehow prove him right. But this doesn't make it so. And he doesn't fool himself."

Although a Supreme Court seat had been his lifelong dream, Poff abruptly withdrew his name from consideration without explanation. Reporters speculated that, despite his recanting, Poff's civil rights record would torpedo the nomination - even though a number of civil rights activists strongly supported him.

But Poff's reasons were personal and he intended them to remain private.

He worried that contentious confirmation hearings might reveal that his 12 year-old son was adopted, something psychologists had advised him not to tell the child for several more years. But in a spectacular act of casual journalistic cruelty, columnist Jack Anderson revealed the facts anyway, forcing Poff and his wife to tell the boy immediately. These were the most difficult moments of his life; so painful, he told an interviewer years later, he simply couldn't discuss them.

And he never did. But recanting racial views anchored in political expediency and abandoning his life's dream in a vain attempt to protect his child both marked him as a man of fundamental honor and decency. After leaving Congress, Poff went on to distinguished service on the Virginia Supreme Court.

He might have agreed with the Greek playwright Aeschylus that "He who learns must suffer . . . [P]ain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom."

Richard Poff died in June at 87, an honorable man.
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