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 quarterly Southern Partisan 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 December 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 this month 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 administration’s rhetoric? 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 threshold.
Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media.