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"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."

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