A surreal mixup disrupted CNN programming for a few moments on Jan. 17 when the network switched to live coverage of Colin Powell. While the retired general appeared on the screen, the audio was the voice of Sen. Edward Kennedy at another Senate hearing — as the senior senator from Massachusetts railed against John Ashcroft’s record of opposing civil rights.
Suddenly, a rattled CNN anchor was apologizing for the technical difficulty. And viewers were left to ponder the unintended juxtaposition of media images.
We’re told that the new administration has embraced the concept of diversity based on merit, with a prime example being the choice of Powell as secretary of state. But the most important domestic policy job is attorney general. And the Ashcroft nomination has sparked a firestorm of resistance for many reasons, including his racial history.
Testifying, Ashcroft did not lack for requisite sound bites: "I believe that racism is wrong… I deplore racism and I always will." His wording was always careful. At one point he said, "I condemn those things that are condemnable."
Ashcroft is experienced at speaking in code while exploiting racism for political gain. A few weeks ago, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch recalled that Ashcroft "has built a career out of opposing school desegregation in St. Louis." Twice, as governor of Missouri, he vetoed bills that sought to give residents of the heavily black city of St. Louis the same access to voter registration as the mostly white residents of surrounding suburbs.
During Ashcroft’s confirmation hearing, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware raised the issue of his interview with Southern Partisan magazine. That publication is so favorable toward the days of slavery that it has sold a T-shirt bearing a picture of Abraham Lincoln accompanied by the Latin words of his assassin, "Sic Semper Tyrannis" — "Thus Always to Tyrants."
Biden neglected to bring up the fact that Ashcroft went out of his way to praise Southern Partisan during his 1998 interview — when he said that the magazine "helps set the record straight" and lauded it for "defending Southern patriots" such as Jefferson Davis, the vehement advocate of slavery who was president of the Confederacy.
And Biden should have asked why Ashcroft used the interview to tell the readers of the nation’s leading neo-Confederate magazine: "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."
After Biden’s somewhat inept questioning of Ashcroft on the subject of the Southern Partisan interview, pro-Ashcroft spinners did their best. On the PBS "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer told viewers that Ashcroft was being unfairly pilloried because of his "respect for Confederate heritage."
Fortunately, some pundits have confronted the implications of Ashcroft’s warm interview with Southern Partisan. Several columnists for mainstream daily newspapers cut to the heart of the matter. In the New York Daily News, Stanley Crouch noted that Southern Partisan introduced the interview by touting Ashcroft as a "champion of states’ rights and traditional Southern values."
Crouch pointed out: "Those are code words for white supremacist ideas about the Civil War, segregation, genetics and so on. Code is now very important, even to those in the boggiest wilds of the far right. They, too, know that in politics it might be best to move under camouflage until you get where you want and can begin opening serious fire against your enemies."
Right now, if John Ashcroft gets where he wants, he’ll be moving into the office of the attorney general of the United States.
In the Boston Globe, columnist Derrick Z. Jackson has been eloquent about what’s at stake. "The nation’s top law enforcer cannot be someone who vacillates between civil rights and Civil War fantasies," Jackson wrote. And he concluded: "When Ashcroft says the traditionalists must do more, America should tremble. The nomination is so perverted, it should follow the final path of his Confederate heroes. It should be driven off in a scorched-earth campaign."
But John Ashcroft and his strongest allies — on Capitol Hill and in the news media — are going all out for Senate approval of his nomination. They have plans. And they’re not just whistling Dixie.