Henningsen: An Honorable Man

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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.

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.

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."

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.

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

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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