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.
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
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.
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 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."
the attorney general of the United States be someone who doubts that the
preservation of slavery was a "perverted agenda"?
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."
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."
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.
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."
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."
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
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."
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.
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
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.
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.