The White House issues a clarification.

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May 29 2009 7:55 PM

Sonia Is Great but Not Better

The White House issues a clarification.

I'm a little puzzled by the White House walkback on Sonia Sotomayor's 32 words. Press secretary Robert Gibbs said Sotomayor made a bad word choice when in 2001 she said, in the context of discussing sex and race discrimination cases: "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

The key problem is the word better. She would have chosen a different word, says Gibbs. He says people who've spoken with Sotomayor explained her thinking to him, embracing the twilight strangeness of Supreme Court nominations where the subject can't speak for herself in public yet. The president, in his interview with NBC's Brian Williams today, said a version of the same thing. "I'm sure she would have restated it. But if you look in the entire sweep of the essay that she wrote, what's clear is that she was simply saying that her life experiences will give her information about the struggles and hardships that people are going through—that will make her a good judge."

Ixnay on the etterbay! But is better no longer good enough because the word is impolitic or because Sotomayor has changed her belief? The question remains: Does she think she's better positioned than a white male judge would be in hearing cases of sex and racial discrimination? The answer is still not clear, because while Gibbs said that better was a bad word, he also read a quote from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg that seemed to support the underlying sentiment. Ginsburg told USA Today that her colleagues may have had the wrong perspective in judging the case of a 13-year-old girl who had been strip-searched by school officials. "They have never been a 13-year-old girl. It's a very sensitive age for a girl. I didn't think that my colleagues, some of them, quite understood."

That quote suggests gender was an impediment to good law in that particular case, and that because she is a woman Ginsburg will reach a better conclusion than her colleagues when the case, which is still pending, comes down. Furthermore, Sandra Day O'Connor spoke approvingly of how Thurgood Marshall's race made him a better judge in some areas and about how being a woman affected her on the bench, too.

After calling some people in the administration, I've come to this conclusion: It doesn't matter that Sotomayor may still believe in better. The 32 words make sense in the context of the speech and the particular passage about sex and race discrimination cases, but we're in a political moment and there's no time for context. The full idea of her speech was not conveyed by those 32 words, and rather than have a long debate down in the weeds, the White House wants us all to have a nice weekend.

The walkback is a small victory for Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, who called Sotomayor a racist for her comments. These 32 words were not a surprise to the White House. If they'd anticipated a bad reaction, they would have issued today's walkback three days earlier. This doesn't mean that Sotomayor's nomination is in trouble. (Republican Sen. John Cornyn, who sits on the Senate judiciary committee, rebuked Gingrich today for his remark.) But the White House hedge means that the bomb throwers were effective on some level. Whether they succeed in snuffing out this debate depends on what Sotomayor says in her hearing. Has she given up on the idea that her experiences would make her a better jurist than a white male judge, more often than not, in sex and race discrimination cases? She'll have plenty of time to choose her words carefully.

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

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