We've come a long way in this country since the 19th century --
but not so long that an admirer of the Confederacy can't be nominated to
run the Justice Department of the United States. The president of the
Confederate government, Jefferson Davis, is a hero to Sen. John Ashcroft,
the man selected to become the next attorney general.
Ashcroft told the Southern Partisan quarterly in a 1998 interview:
"Your magazine also helps set the record straight. You've got a heritage of
doing that, of defending Southern patriots like [Robert E.] 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."
Evidently, Ashcroft can't abide the idea that preservation of
slavery was a "perverted agenda."
In the coming days, as Ashcroft prepares for his Senate
confirmation hearing, some of George W. Bush's media spinners will be
working overtime to explain away those comments. They can take comfort from
the fact that national news outlets have been slow to probe the meaning of
Ashcroft's interview. Among its most disturbing aspects is his assertion
that Southern Partisan "helps set the record straight."
A year ago, 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 said that slave owners "encouraged
strong slave families to further the slaves' peace and happiness." In 1990,
the magazine lauded former KKK leader David Duke as "a Populist
spokesperson for a recapturing of the American ideal."
The racial politics of Southern Partisan could not be more clear.
Ashcroft's endorsement of the magazine in 1998 could hardly be more
unequivocal. And the need for journalists to probe this issue could hardly
be more pressing.
Overall, a bit of a media stir has begun. Hours after Bush
announced his nomination, a New York Times editorial declared: "Mr.
Ashcroft's hard-line ideology and extreme views and actions on issues like
abortion and civil rights require a searching examination at his
confirmation hearing." The next day, a prominent newspaper in Ashcroft's
home state of Missouri disputed his fitness to be U.S. attorney general.
In an editorial that 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 St. Louis 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 wonder Bob Jones University, notorious for bigotry, gave
Ashcroft an honorary degree in 1999 -- and no wonder he was proud to accept it.
A sampling of daily newspaper editorials published on Dec. 27,
five days after Bush gave Ashcroft the nod, reflects an array of media
attitudes. "Mr. Bush deserves congratulations for the Cabinet assembled
thus far," the Christian Science Monitor proclaimed, downplaying objections
to Ashcroft's appointment. Meanwhile, the Chicago Tribune editorialized:
"The question facing the Senate is whether Ashcroft is committed to fully
and fairly enforcing the laws of the land. From what is known, his critics
will have a hard time showing that he is not."
But on the same day, the San Francisco Chronicle drew very
different conclusions in an editorial that said Ashcroft "faces a Herculean
task of reconciling his new duties with his views on abortion and civil
rights, which are completely contrary to established national standards....
His nomination to head the Justice Department was widely viewed as a payoff
to GOP right-wingers. That hardly squares with Bush's stated intention to
keep politics out of that office."
Several days after the announcement of the Ashcroft pick,
information about his reverence for the Confederacy began to seep into
national news accounts. We'll see whether January brings sustained follow-up.
The Ashcroft nomination could turn out to be the defining issue of
the presidential transition. Will Senate Democrats knuckle under or fight
for minimal principles? How deeply will journalists probe beneath the new
All too often, major news outlets and politicians look to each
other for basic cues rather than going ahead with decent steps, a kind of
grim parody of a comedic routine: "After you, Alfonse. No, after you,
Gaston." With the odious nomination of John Ashcroft, we're at a fateful
Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is "The Habits of
Highly Deceptive Media."