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ASHCROFT: NOT JUST WHISTLING DIXIE


Norman Solomon

More

than 13 decades after Robert E. Lee surrendered at  Appomattox, the U.S.

Senate is getting ready to confirm as attorney general  someone who has

voiced fervent admiration for the Confederacy. It’s an  almost unbelievable

situation. Yet many news outlets — and the vast  majority of senators —

are perpetuating a state of denial.

John

Ashcroft, defeated for re-election to the Senate last  November, is the

incoming president’s most controversial Cabinet pick.  Arguments are raging

about Ashcroft’s hardline positions against civil  rights, affirmative

action, school desegregation, women’s rights, abortion,  gay rights and

protection of civil liberties. Media attention has focused  on the

extraordinary actions that he took in 1999 to block the appointment  of

African-American judge Ronnie White to the federal bench by smearing him  as

"pro-criminal."

If

he becomes attorney general, Ashcroft will be the nation’s  chief law

enforcement officer. He’ll have enormous power while running the  Justice

Department and making weighty recommendations to the president on  judicial

appointments. For good measure, Ashcroft will oversee such  agencies as the

FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Immigration  and

Naturalization Service and federal prisons.

Less

than two years ago, in an extensive interview with Southern  Partisan

magazine, Ashcroft was emphatic about his admiration for Jefferson  Davis

and other Confederate leaders. At the time, the senator was  considering a

run for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination, a quest  that would

have involved cultivating support among white voters in GOP  primaries in

the South.

During

the 1998 interview, Ashcroft praised Southern Partisan as a  magazine that

"helps set the record straight." He added: "You’ve got a  heritage

of doing that, of defending Southern patriots like Lee,  [Stonewall]

Jackson and Davis. Traditionalists must do more. I’ve got to do  more.

We’ve all got to stand up and speak in this respect, or else we’ll be  taught

that these people were giving their lives, subscribing their sacred  fortunes

and their honor to some perverted agenda."

Should

the attorney general of the United States be someone who  doubts that the

preservation of slavery was a "perverted agenda"?

That’s

not the only key question that arises from reading the  Ashcroft interview

in Southern Partisan (three pages of text ending with  his warm farewell,

"I’ll be seeing you!"). It’s crucial to understand the  magazine

that Ashcroft went out of his way to laud. A year ago, in its Jan.  31

issue, The New Republic reported that Southern Partisan "serves as the

 leading journal of the neo-Confederacy movement" — and, for two

decades,  has been publishing "a gumbo of racist apologias."

For

instance, in 1996, Southern Partisan asserted that slave  owners

"encouraged strong slave families to further the slaves’ peace and  happiness."

In 1990, the magazine touted former KKK leader David Duke as "a  Populist

spokesperson for a recapturing of the American ideal."

Gradually,

since George W. Bush announced his choice for attorney  general on Dec. 22,

information about Ashcroft’s interview with Southern  Partisan has begun to

reach the public. Some news accounts have quoted his  favorable words about

Davis and other top Confederates. But few journalists  have gone deeply

into the story.

Some

Ashcroft backers have strained to pooh-pooh the Southern  Partisan

interview. In a Dec. 31 editorial, the Detroit News scoffed at any  suggestion

that Ashcroft’s comments "call into question his commitment to  civil

rights and may be grounds for a challenge to his appointment." The  newspaper

declared: "That’s a nonsensical smoke screen. The views Sen.  Ashcroft

shared several years ago with Southern Partisan magazine reflect a  curious

American reality — the ability to reconcile admiration for the  courage,

nobility and commitment of the rebels with an objection to their  cause."

In

fact, Ashcroft derided the idea that pro-slavery leaders had a  blameworthy

agenda, and he did not express any "objection to their cause."  The

Detroit News editorial was misleading in another important respect:  Like

so much other media coverage, it did not scrutinize — or even mention  —

Ashcroft’s sweeping endorsement of Southern Partisan as a magazine that  "helps

set the record straight."

Avoidance

of Ashcroft’s overall record has been typical of  editorials by newspapers

supporting him for attorney general, including the  Boston Herald, the

Atlanta Journal and the Chicago Tribune. But at least as  many daily papers

— notably the New York Times, the San Francisco  Chronicle and the Star

Tribune in Minneapolis — have editorialized against  the Ashcroft

nomination. And quite a few other dailies (such as the Atlanta  Constitution,

Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times and St. Petersburg Times)  have expressed

editorial misgivings.

Perhaps

most telling has been the response from the most prominent  newspaper in

the prospective attorney general’s home state of Missouri, the  St. Louis

Post-Dispatch — which swiftly urged the Senate to "investigate  Mr.

Ashcroft’s opposition to civil rights, women’s rights, abortion rights  and

to judicial nominees with whom he disagrees." The Post-Dispatch  recalled

that "Mr. Ashcroft has built a career out of opposing school  desegregation

in St. Louis and opposing African-Americans for public office."

It’s

no surprise that Bob Jones University, notorious for bigotry,  gave

Ashcroft an honorary degree in 1999. Accepting the award in person, he  was

proud to deliver the university’s commencement address.

While

the country’s editorial writers and columnists are deeply  divided over

whether Ashcroft should become attorney general, there is much  less

division in evidence on Capitol Hill. Republicans, of course, are  marching

to Bush’s drum. Meanwhile, the Senate’s 50 Democrats have been  mealy-mouthed

at best.

Democratic

politicians are fond of preening themselves as  champions of civil rights.

But now, at a pivotal moment in history — while  some complain that

Ashcroft’s ideology makes them uncomfortable and promise  that the nominee

will face tough questions — the bottom line is that  Democrats in the

Senate seem very willing to cave.

The

Ashcroft nomination could turn out to be the defining issue of  the

presidential transition. Right now, the cowardice of Senate Democrats  is

sending an obscene message of contempt toward all Americans who have  struggled

against racism since the Civil War.

Norman Solomon is

executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy  (www.accuracy.org),

a nationwide consortium of policy researchers with  offices in San

Francisco and Washington.

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