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 in November, is the incoming president’s most controversial Cabinet pick. Arguments are raging about Ashcroft’s hard-line 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 interview, Ashcroft praised Southern Partisan as a magazine that “helps set the record straight,” adding “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 question arising from the interview. And to fully understand the impact of Ashcroft’s words, you must understand who reads Southern Partisan, which has been described as “a leading journal of the neo-Confederacy movement.”
In 1996, the magazine asserted that slave owners “encouraged strong slave families to further the slaves’ peace and happiness.” And in 1990, Southern Partisan touted former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke as “a Populist spokesperson for a recapturing of the American ideal.”
Some Ashcroft backers have strained to pooh-pooh the fallout from the interview. For example, a Dec. 31 editorial in 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 Sun, 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 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 the Democrats in the Senate seem very willing to cave.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont lost no time signaling pacific intent toward Ashcroft, a six-year-member of the club: “I do not intend to lead a fight against him.”
Another purported liberal on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, was quick to say: “Unless there’s something I’m unaware of, I’d be inclined to vote for him.”
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, a nationwide consortium of policy researchers with offices in San Francisco and Washington.