How Sen. Alan Dixon gave us President Barack Obama

If Sen. Alan Dixon hadn't voted to confirm Clarence Thomas in 1991, he might not have lost to a primary race to Carol Moseley Braun, who lost the seat to Peter Fitzgerald in 1998. Barack Obama won the Senate seat in 2004. (Nuccio DiNuzzo, Chicago Tribune 2004 / November 2, 2004)

Clarence Thomas didn't need Alan Dixon's vote, as it turned out.

Thomas, a 43-year-old conservative U.S. Supreme Court nominee in fall 1991, had just undergone a sensational, brutal confirmation hearing in which he'd been confronted with allegations that he had sexually harassed Anita Hill, a former assistant.

And Dixon, who died last weekend a day shy of his 87th birthday, was a 64-year-old second-term Democratic senator from Illinois who was under considerable pressure from women's groups and a majority of his Democratic colleagues in the Senate to reject the nomination.

It would have been an easy no vote. Several prominent Democrats who had earlier signaled their support had changed their minds — including Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Harry Reid of Nevada and Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York. Illinois' other senator, Democrat Paul Simon, was voting against Thomas. Even two Republicans — Bob Packwood of Oregon and Jim Jeffords of Vermont — were lining up with majority Democrats to oppose the nomination.

And yet there were still 10 Democrats supporting Thomas, a nominee of President George H.W. Bush, giving him 51 votes, one more than he needed to win a lifetime seat on the high court.

But Dixon, telling reporters that "the accused gets the benefit of the doubt," became the 52nd vote to confirm Thomas.

That was on Oct. 15, 1991. And I'll pause just a moment in this narrative to observe how quaintly collegial and bipartisan Thomas' confirmation looks from the vantage point of 2014. A straight-up majority vote on an extremely controversial and highly ideological nominee? A bloc of opposition-party senators giving deference to the politicized prerogatives of the president?

Dixon paid a heavy price for his vote. At the time he appeared to be cruising to re-election in 1992, with the primary just five months off and no challenger from either party in sight. But on Oct. 17, more than 100 women waving "Dump Dixon" signs picketed a Democratic fundraiser on Navy Pier, and a search was on for liberal challenger to the centrist Dixon.

A month later, in the space of three days, Chicago attorney Al Hofeld and Cook County Recorder of Deeds Carol Moseley Braun formally announced they would mount primary challenges to Dixon. It seemed like a long shot, trying to harness the anger of base Democratic voters and overcome the party leaders — including Simon, Mayor Richard M. Daley and House Speaker Michael Madigan — who had jumped to Dixon's defense.

But Braun, fueled by umbrage and boosted by her megawatt smile, eked out a 38 percent to 35 percent victory over Dixon in March 1992, and went on trounce Republican businessman Rich Williamson by 10 percentage points in November's general election.

Dixon never expressed regret over his (unnecessary) vote to confirm Thomas even though it almost certainly cost him another six to 12 years in the Senate. Heck, there are currently nine U.S. senators older than Dixon would have been if he'd been sworn in for a fifth term in early 2005.

Instead he gave us Braun, whose inexperience and vain ineptitude resulted in the election to the Senate, six years later, of wealthy Republican idealist Peter Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald, who only beat Braun by 3 percentage points, grew disillusioned by the political process, lost support in his party's establishment and decided not to run for re-election.

This gave us the wide-open Senate race in 2004 that resulted in the election of a little-known Democratic state senator named Barack Obama.

My Dixon-based hypothesis: No "yes" vote on Thomas means no Sen. Braun. No Sen. Braun means no Sen. Fitzgerald. No Sen. Fitzgerald means a more orderly, establishment-based 2004 Democratic primary. A more orderly, establishment-based 2004 Democratic primary means no Sen. Obama in 2005.

Counterfactual musing like this is, of course, highly speculative and subject to additional "what if?" challenges (What if Hofeld had dropped out in 1992? What if the GOP had not been so destructively petulant about Fitzgerald's maverick ways?) And every successful political career — or, heck, successful career of any sort — is moved along by forces and events taking place at great remove that, only in retrospect, look like fortunate happenstance.

Critics as well as supporters of Obama have remarked on his incredibly good political luck, including a succession of unexpectedly weak, damaged or just plain goofy, self-immolating opponents. Though I'd note that, unlike a lot of winning politicians, he didn't enjoy the happy accident of birth — being born into wealth or power — that benefits so many.

But to an extent that's true, that luck really began on Oct. 15, 1991, with the vote Dixon didn't need to cast.

Boeing to extend curse of the carry-ons

Friday's paper had the news that Boeing Co. will be offering new, larger overhead storage bins on certain airplane models, thus giving passengers considerably more ability to avoid checking their substantial wheeled suitcases.

The whole idea of "carry-on luggage" — small overnight bags, knapsacks, purses — has already been perverted past recognition by travelers scheming to avoid checked baggage fees, and rather than alleviate the fight for bin space that now makes the pre-boarding ritual so harum-scarum, this move seems likely to escalate it.

Now, truly, only suckers will pay to check their bags. The obvious solution would be for checked bags to fly free, and charge $5 or $10 for space in the overhead bins.

Who is with me?

Re: Tweets

By a narrow margin, the Change of Subject online readers' choice for best tweet of the week was the highly topical World Cup quip, "I just kicked a can in my driveway and somehow ended up with a goal against Brazil," by Guy Endore-Kaiser.

My favorite was one of the close runners-up, a timeless line from Julieanne Smolinski: "What's that? Everyone else on the Potato Naming Committee is sick? Well, well, well . . . Craig Fingerling."

Comment on this column and sign up for my weekly email newsletter containing links to all columns and some exclusive back story at chicagotribune.com/zorn

Featured Stories

Advertisement

PLAN AHEAD

Top Trending Videos