Senator Claghorn, Meet John Ashcroft!

As the United States Senate prepares to take up the

nomination of John Ashcroft for U.S. Attorney General, the unlamented specter

haunting its chamber is none other than Jefferson Davis. The long-deceased

president of the old Confederacy is regarded as a hero by the former Senator

from Missouri, whose praise of such figures-and whose links to right-wing

extremists in his home state and elsewhere-raises serious doubts regarding his

fitness to become the nation’s highest law-enforcement officer.

By selecting Mr. Ashcroft to take over that office, George

W. Bush has re-opened a debate that ought to have been settled in 1865. There

are ample valid reasons to oppose Mr. Ashcroft, including his hard-line

position on abortion rights, his servility to the gun lobby and his

consistently poor record on civil liberties.

What cuts most deeply, however, is Mr. Ashcroft’s apparent

endorsement of the defeated Southern slavocracy, with all that necessarily

implies about his true attitudes toward black Americans and other minorities.

According to recent reports in the Associated Press and

elsewhere, Mr. Ashcroft gave an interview in 1998 to the Southern Partisan , a “neo-Confederate” publication that regularly

vilifies Abraham Lincoln as a “tyrant.” He praised its sinister brand of

nostalgia, saying that the magazine “helps set the record straight” by

“defending Southern patriots” like Davis and Robert E. Lee. “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,” Mr. Ashcroft went on. (Presumably the slaveholders were

the “compassionate conservatives” of their era.)

Those quotes date back to when the unique distinction of

being defeated for re-election by a dead man was still far in Mr. Ashcroft’s

future. He was preening himself as a potential Presidential candidate and

recruiting the die-hard partisans of Dixie for a Christian Right Presidential

crusade.

Today he continues to be held in the highest esteem by the

racist far right, notably including the Council of Conservative Citizens, a

neo-Confederate outfit that maintains its national headquarters in St. Louis.

Back when Mr. Ashcroft was considering a Presidential campaign, the

C.C.C.’s  national leader, Gordon Baum,

said publicly that next to Pat Buchanan, the Senator from Missouri was the

group’s favorite contender.

Now Mr. Baum and his followers are rejoicing at the notion

that Mr. Ashcroft will soon be sworn in as Attorney General. A recent editorial

on the Missouri C.C.C. Web site concerning the Ashcroft nomination was

headlined “Our Ship Has Come In.” Waxing poetical, the writer went on to say

that, to those with a religious cast of mind, Mr. Ashcroft’s ascendancy means

“the whole tragic sequence of the Carnahan plane crash seemed to have a Higher

Purpose.” (That followed a typical essay arguing that “the present and future

schism in American politics is not necessarily ideological, doctrinal or

partisan, but racial.”)

The group’s initials may look familiar because the C.C.C. is

the same organization that so badly embarrassed Senate Majority Leader Trent

Lott and Georgia Representative Bob Barr when their connections to the group

were exposed in late 1998. Both claimed, implausibly, to be unaware of the

C.C.C.’s racist pedigree.

In the current matter, exactly why does the C.C.C. believe

its “ship has come in” with Mr. Ashcroft’s nomination? His ideological tilt is

one reason, but there is another, mentioned briefly on the C.C.C. Web site,

that is just as troubling.

Over the past three years, Mr. Ashcroft-then a member of the

Senate Judiciary Committee-evidently took up the cause of a man under

investigation for alleged Medicare fraud by the Justice Department. The

apparent target of the Justice probe is a St. Louis dentist who also happens to

be an active C.C.C. member. Mr. Ashcroft tried to help, “but those efforts had

to be put on the back burner when his 2000 re-election campaign for Senate

began,” according to a recent column posted on the Web site by a C.C.C.

official. The same column boasts that the Ashcroft nomination “will likely mean

that some time soon after Jan. 20, the Feds will drop any efforts to indict”

their loyal dentist friend.

Whatever the merits of the fraud case, that confident

prediction of their man’s rescue by Mr. Ashcroft hints at an unseemly intimacy

between him and an openly racist organization. Taken with his remarks to the Southern Partisan, it seems to place

this nominee at a point on the American political spectrum from which no

Cabinet member should be chosen, least of all an Attorney General.

Before he receives a single vote of confirmation from any

decent legislator, Mr. Ashcroft should be required to explain himself-not only

by Democrats but by the party of Lincoln and the President-elect, who has told

us that his own heart is free of the sin of racial hatred.