A decade ago, Lani Guinier was publicly trashed by her political opponents and left to flap in the wind. It was the most liberating period of her life.
"You mean the failure theory of success?" Lani Guinier asks with characteristic vigor. Even on the phone, she radiates energy. I had begun our conversation somewhat hesitantly— I wasn't calling to inquire about her accomplishments as one of America's top legal scholars, the author of five books, and the first black woman to become a tenured professor at Harvard Law School: Would she be willing to talk, instead, about failure?
She clarifies: "The idea that failure can be a moment of liberation at the same time that it is a moment of sadness or despair. Right?"
Right. This had been the subject of an unforgettable commencement address I heard her give at Bard College last spring. In his introduction, Bard president Leon Botstein had listed among Lani Guinier's achievements her surviving the infamous debacle of 1993, when former president Bill Clinton nominated her to be assistant attorney general for civil rights. She was immediately attacked in the press. At first only a trickle of conservative journalists excoriated her for ideas she had expressed in academic journals, taking them out of context and distorting them. In the most notorious instance, very subtle points she'd made about the unfairness of the winner-take-all system of voting, which denies any minority participation in decision making, as opposed to a system of proportional voting, were described as radical demands for racial quotas—quite the opposite of what she had written. The attacks were then taken up elsewhere, repeating the inaccuracies. No one from the White House defended her. On the contrary, they told her not to respond to the attacks. With no organized stance to unite them, her academic colleagues and many supporters could only watch, aghast and unheard in the circus that destroyed her as a viable nominee.
As she recalled, "I quickly became branded a 'quota queen,' 'looney Lani,' 'America's madwoman.' Within a month, I was—as my son, who was then 6, liked to say—'dumped.'... I was publicly humiliated. And yet that failure ultimately gave me a public platform to talk about the very ideas that had gotten me into so much trouble."
Next: "The poet who is not in trouble with the king..."
It is always moving to see dignity combined with vulnerability, and Guinier is a powerful orator—tall, imposing yet warm, deftly establishing great intimacy with her Bard audience. The usually restive graduating seniors and their families were absolutely silent while she spoke. "Many of us are afraid of failure, and, in fact, some of you may never have experienced failure, and it may seem odd to be talking about failure on a day in which we are here to commend you for your success," she told the class of 2003. "What I'd like to talk to you about today is not to be afraid of those failures, because in many ways success and failure are interrelated: Success is failure turned inside out. And I say this because I used to be very afraid of failure."
She quoted Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian writer who teaches at Bard and was in the audience that day: "'The poet who is not in trouble with the king is in trouble with her work.'" She looked up at the graduating seniors and repeated the line: "'The poet who is not in trouble with the king is in trouble with her work.' She is not doing her job. I took that as a lesson. I know what it's like to be in trouble with the king. But I hope ultimately that history will not judge me to be in trouble with my work."
She continued, "I want to talk to you about what it means when people don't like your ideas, when you are disappointed because people don't like your ideas. When, in order to succeed, you have to have the nerve of failure, the willingness to do things you believe in even though that may mean some people don't like you; the courage to speak truth to power, to get in trouble with the king every once in a while. The nerve of failure is actually what David Riesman, the late Harvard sociologist, described as the courage to face the possibility of defeat and even aloneness without being morally destroyed."
She repeated the last phrase, and it rang with gravity in the hushed tent: "...the courage to face the possibility of defeat and even aloneness without being morally destroyed."
Watching her and imagining her dire situation in 1993, it was impossible not to feel a little shiver of...what was it? Horror, sympathy, awe. A feeling of both identification and fear.
Her words and her appearance and her manner were so memorable that day that I kept replaying these moments in the months that followed, with the sense that an important lesson was embedded in Lani Guinier's crucible, as well as real consolation—or inspiration, depending on how one views such universal but mysterious personal trials. And also with a sense of wonder at her survival and transformation.
When we spoke by phone shortly afterward, I quickly realized that Lani Guinier's views on failure were the result of a lifelong process of analysis. "My experience in 1993 crystallized what I had already been thinking," she says. "My mother pushed me to think this way all my life." Guinier recalls, in first or second grade, some older kids from across the street making fun of her. "We would play school, and they would always be the teacher and I'd be the student, and they would tease me if I misspelled a word. When I talked to my mother about it, she said there were many ways to interpret their behavior. One was that they were white and they were being racist; another was that they were jealous because I did very well in school and they didn't; and a third was that kids are just mean." She laughs. "What my mother did for me was to introduce me to all three possible explanations—which were important because they said that it wasn't my problem."
From this perspective, failure is an opportunity. "It gives you the chance to see yourself reflected in the mirror of the world, not dwell on your internal faults or your internal deficits. When you feel sorry for yourself and misunderstood, you usually have a very internal conversation. It becomes so crushing. The failure theory of success encourages you to have a conversation that involves yourself and the ways you've contributed to the problem, but then allows you to move in many different directions. And you can follow these vectors in ways that are liberating, not just oppressive."
Next: How Guinier's father responded to his own experiences with racism
Certainly, her remarkable visibility in the past decade as an activist and expert speaking out on voting rights, the theory of democracy, affirmative action, the politics of gender, and the law is evidence that her analysis has merit. Guinier's eloquence about her experience doesn't only serve to explain herself but also to further her goals. "This failure theory of success is a critique of the excesses of radical individualism, right? Because radical individualism says, If you really work hard and if you are really a good person, you will succeed. But it has no explanation for when you fail except that there's something wrong with you. When everything is a function of the individual, the individual succeeds because the individual is great; the individual fails because the individual is a failure." She laughs. "No! When people fail, it's often a function of their relationship to other structures, and it can be a lens on a larger set of dysfunctions, deficiencies, or problems."
The lessons she learned from her Jewish mother were potently reinforced by her black father's experience. A brilliant student, he was admitted to Harvard but not granted financial aid (the reason given, she says: He "hadn't submitted a photograph with his application!"), not allowed to live on campus, not spoken to by his white classmates, and never called on in class. He dropped out after two years, lacking the funds to continue, and responded to an earlier job offer from The New York Times for former high school newspaper editors. When he appeared at the Times, the position offered was operating the freight elevator. He accepted. "He was poor," Guinier explains. "But he used the job to read the paper cover to cover every day. It became one of his most cherished habits."
Ewart Guinier eventually finished his education at Columbia and New York universities and became a union leader. After a difficult period during the McCarthy era in which he lost his job after his union came under attack, Ewart became the first chair of Harvard's Department of Afro-American Studies. "No, I wouldn't say he was devoid of bitterness," Lani Guinier acknowledges. "But he didn't obsess about things. He was much more of a fighter. His view was: This is an injustice that has to be rectified—not necessarily for him but for the larger community."
In her 1998 book, Lift Every Voice, which recounts the circumstances surrounding her nomination as assistant attorney general for civil rights and what she came to call her "dis-appointment," she writes about how one of the most nightmarish aspects of it all was her sense that she was reliving some of her father's worst experiences, a sense of not being allowed to defend herself, of being betrayed and humiliated by people she had thought were friends, including the president of the United States.
What of her own bitterness? She had gone to Yale Law School with Bill and Hillary, and they were guests at her wedding. She hasn't heard from them since 1993, except for official Christmas cards and a mistaken letter of condolence (no one had died) sent to her mother's house.
Does she carry a grudge, or has she found a way of forgiving?
"Well, you know...forgiving..." she muses. "I think I'm more of the school of forgetting. That is, you move on. It's not that you forgive, it's that you don't dwell on it. Well, it could be that as I get older..." She laughs. "I used to have a fabulous memory...so that's convenient. The slights don't resonate for me over time. They become less interesting. There are so many other things happening. That's not to say you truly forget, but you don't invest the memory with the same overwhelming significance."
Next: Why we need to hear about failure
She says that took a while: "I'm not a saint! It energizes you to act, right? So that's a good thing. And then the question is, How do you act? How do you channel that energy constructively?" In her view, especially when you're dealing with someone more powerful than you, "fighting back may get you into a paralyzing situation. If you use that energy against yourself—if you blame yourself—that's also paralyzing."
What saved Lani Guinier when she was marooned in her ordeal? "I did not feel that I had lost face. I never, ever considered repudiating what I had written or claiming that I didn't mean what I said. I felt that people had misinterpreted what I said. But it never occurred to me to go back and look at those articles that got me into so much trouble and rue the day I had written them. Or regret that I had said what I said. I believed in what I was saying, you know, as a theory or as an idea. I thought I was putting forward valid ideas, and I did not distance myself from them."
This commitment to integrity endows Guinier with tremendous personal power and seems at the heart of her capacity to hold an audience rapt and receptive. That day at Bard College, she invoked Howard Thurman, the theologian and educator whose work was the origin of much of the civil rights movement's nonviolent philosophy. "He said, don't just ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and then go and do it, because what the world needs is people who have come alive." She continued: "And in fact, in 1993, through that experience of failure, I learned what made me come alive, I learned who I really was, I learned what I really stood for, I learned what was most meaningful to me...I learned that however much I was suffering from the public humiliation that I experienced, there were many people in this country who had suffered much more every day than I had."
When she finished her talk, looked up, and smiled at us, she received a long ovation. Many in the audience were wiping away tears—an unusual display by college graduates who are so often exhorted to Do It and Make It, and implicitly urged to feel powerful rather than compassionate, to value quantifiable achievements over exploration and openness.
Perhaps we have a profound need to hear of the failures of the people we admire. They bring us relief and inspiration, and suggest to us that the story of our own losses can also be the story of our triumphs. And it seems to me that what stirred so many of us in Lani Guinier's audience was the sense that she had earned the right to speak not only of her own experiences but also of the community we all share, and to remind us of bigger stakes and deeper hope.