Ashcroft whistles Dixie

Bush's attorney general nominee is only the latest conservative lawmaker caught pandering to fans of the Confederacy in a tiny but powerful Southern journal.

Published January 3, 2001 8:49PM (EST)

John Ashcroft surely expected to face much of the heat he's now experiencing as a Cabinet nominee -- the outgoing Missouri senator's pro-life, pro-death penalty positions, along with his role in pursuing the impeachment of President Clinton, among other issues, were bound to be fodder for critics from the left and center.

But could he have expected that an interview he gave in 1998 to a Southern cultural journal with a circulation of about 8,000 would threaten to fire up civil rights groups -- partisans, all -- eager to brand the country's would-be next head of the Justice Department a racist?

Well ... yes, he probably should have. Long before Ashcroft ever chatted up the Southern Partisan, other conservative politicians also had, and lived to regret it. When Ashcroft praised the journal for "defending Southern patriots like Lee, Jackson and Davis" -- Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis, the holy trinity of the Confederate States of America -- he was probably, say political observers, trying to shore up support among the Republican Party's important Southern conservatives while considering a 2000 presidential run.

Now his words are coming back to haunt him, as has happened to others:

  • In 1984, then-Rep. Trent Lott calls the Civil War "the war of aggression" in the Southern Partisan and says that the modern Republican Party reflects many of the values of Jefferson Davis.

  • In 1990, Rep. Dick Armey tells the magazine that civil rights legislation directed at the South proved the region was "the victim of an unfair stereotype."

  • In 1996, Patrick Buchanan is targeted by opponents for his affiliation with the magazine as a columnist and a "senior adviser," along with his boast in 1986 that he was descended from a Confederate prisoner of war.

  • During the 2000 Republican primaries, Sen. John McCain is slammed for having Richard Quinn, one time editor in chief of the Partisan, on his campaign staff. Though Quinn and McCain endure attacks from the left and the Bush campaign, the Arizona senator stands by Quinn.

    On Tuesday, Ashcroft could not be reached for comment over the 2-year-old interview, but when it first surfaced in the fall of 1999, after Ashcroft had blocked the appointment of African-American Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White from the federal bench, his Senate office tersely stood by his comments.

    Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker dismissed the potential damage of the Partisan interview on Ashcroft's chances for confirmation. "Sen. Ashcroft is a man who wants an exact reading of history," she said of his praise of Confederate leaders. "I think it matters what the man believes," she added. "If you look at the facts, he has a wonderful record on civil rights."

    Most groups aligned against the Ashcroft nomination would disagree. Hilary Shelton, Washington director of the NAACP, says the interview reflects Ashcroft's abysmal record with blacks, pointing out that 90 percent of blacks in Missouri voted Nov. 7 for the late Mel Carnahan for senator instead of Ashcroft, who lost. Carnahan's widow, Jean, assumed office in his place.

    "Ninety percent of African-Americans in Missouri would rather vote for a dead man than for Ashcroft," Shelton says. The nonprofit People for the American Way, which led the attack on McCain's hiring of Quinn last year, plans to focus specifically on the Partisan interview when it raises concerns about Ashcroft's record during the confirmation process.

    All because of a brief talk to an obscure quarterly journal published in South Carolina but operating in the mental CSA (Confederate States of America), written for and by those who feel that the wrong side won the Civil War. Its Dixiecrat ideology -- in columns, interviews, book reviews, editorial cartoons and essays -- is leavened with pieces about more innocuous aspects of Southern culture: recipes, NASCAR racing, country music and Civil War history. There's a strong rightward lean to the politics, with a suspicion of central government, international entanglements and taxes. On social issues, it's hard-line family values. The advertisers are more extreme and disturbing.

    Editor in chief Christopher Sullivan says the magazine has little to do with race, but then again, he also says the Confederacy had little to do with race. Slavery was an unfortunate occurrence, he says, but somewhat inevitable, and its offenses overstated. Regardless, he believes slavery should not dim the honor of Confederate heroes.

    "There's a movement out there to erase these people from history just because people disagree with them," Sullivan asserts. "We just want them to be treated fairly."

    Sullivan says that he, along with several Southern Partisan contributors and "most credible historians," doesn't believe that slavery was the root cause of the Civil War. A recent cover story by Sullivan was headlined: "Did Slavery Cause the War Between the States?" The answer: a resounding no.

    So then what, exactly, did cause the war? "Southerners just hate to be told what to do," Sullivan says. Slavery, he says, was incidental to the larger issue of states' rights, a cause Sullivan says motivated most Confederate soldiers. This split, according to Sullivan, was inevitable, regardless of the disposition of slavery.

    "It's historically wrong to portray the war as a battle between bad Southern slave owners and good abolitionists," Sullivan says. Perhaps, though surely most schoolchildren learn the generically balanced view well represented by this blurb from the Encyclopedia Brittanica: "The ensuing outbreak of armed hostilities was the culmination of decades of growing sectional friction over the related issues of slavery, trade and tariffs, and the doctrine of states' rights."

    Curiously, though, Sullivan does participate in an odd game of slave-baiting. Lee, he points out, freed his slaves before Union military commander Ulysses S. Grant did.

    And when asked the million-dollar question -- was slavery wrong? -- Sullivan answers in the affirmative ... eventually. "I think probably so," he says, "slavery was evil." (Later, he speaks more definitively, saying, "Yes, slavery was evil.")

    But that's not always been the message in the publication. In a 1995 Southern Partisan article, Samuel Francis, a former columnist for the Washington Times, scolded the Southern Baptist church for formally apologizing for the church's early support of slavery. Repentance, Francis wrote, was unnecessary, because "neither 'slavery' nor 'racism' as an institution is a sin."

    He then cited Biblical passages that would seem to condone slavery, concluding that "there is no indication that slavery is contrary to Christian ethics or that any serious theologian before modern times ever thought it was."

    The Washington Times also printed Francis' column in June 1995. But the paper later sacked Francis after the Washington Post quoted him encouraging his fellow whites to "reassert our identity and our solidarity" at a conference. "We must do so in explicitly racial terms through the articulation of a racial consciousness as whites," Francis had said. "The civilization that we as whites created in Europe and America could not have developed apart from the genetic endowments of the creating people."

    Though sharing space in a magazine with writers like Francis could be considered a political risk, Republican leaders such as Lott, Helms and Armey have all been featured in the Southern Partisan. Frequently, these leaders use their Southern Partisan interviews to defend their opposition to civil rights legislation.

    That's not much of a surprise to Mark Potok, a critic of the magazine and the editor of the Southern Poverty Law Centers "Intelligence Report," which documents right-wing hate groups. "I think that Southern politicians are frequently pandering to an audience with racist leanings," he said.

    Furthermore, Missouri has a history of coziness with the Confederates. During the Civil War, the state was torn -- literally and figuratively -- between the sentiments of its large population of Southern settlers and its pro-Union settlers. Ed Sebesta, an independent watchdog of the "neo-Confederacy movement," notes, "During the Civil War, some Missouri white supremacists set up a government in exile in Texas."

    Though he would surely characterize the exiles differently, Ashcroft does mention the Texas connection in his Southern Partisan interview. "I was down in Texas the other day, and someone asked, 'Where was Missouri during the Civil War?' I said, 'Frankly, it was in Texas.'"

    Sebesta believes Ashcroft granted the Southern Partisan interview and made pro-Confederate statements at a time when he hoped to run for the presidency in 2000. (The interview was published in October 1998.)

    Potok says that such a move was an unusual step for a veteran politician looking to raise his national profile. "Most of them would do this early in their careers, before they knew any better," he says. "This was just foolish." Given the heat of the confirmation process, Potok says he wouldn't be surprised if the Southern Partisan interview gives Ashcroft a major headache. "Look at what happened to John McCain," he says.

    After the New Republic blew the whistle on Richard Quinn, McCain's embattled consultant, Quinn's Southern Partisan writings came under scrutiny, including an article he authored in 1983 criticizing the authorization of a holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. "King Day should have been rejected because its purpose is vitriolic and profane," Quinn wrote.

    He continued: "Ignoring the real heroes in our nation's life, the blacks have chosen a man who represents not their emancipation, not their sacrifices and bravery in service to their country; rather, they have chosen a man whose role in history was to lead his people into a perpetual dependence on the welfare state, a terrible bondage of body and soul."

    In a 1990 column, Quinn wrote that Klansman-turned-politico David Duke won a seat in the Louisiana Legislature because he spoke for ordinary Americans "fed up with drugs and street violence, with special interest politics and 'reverse discrimination,' with the bloating of the welfare state, the decay of the cities ... and the disintegration of the American family."

    That same year, Quinn was notably less forgiving when it came to Nelson Mandela. "Mandela," he wrote, "was put in jail 27 years ago -- not because of his humanitarian philosophy -- but because he was a terrorist who openly advocated (and personally committed) violence." Quinn lamented that Mandela's critics were forced into silence by the forces of political correctness. "How many people ... are well aware that Mandela is a bad egg ... but are afraid to express their real opinions publicly?"

    Now Quinn wonders why some of the Southern Partisan's critics won't give him the benefit of the doubt, or allow for the possibility that he might have changed his mind since those writings. "I'm not proud of everything I wrote 10 years ago, no," he says, adding that lots of conservatives writing at the time had shared his feelings about King, Duke and Mandela.

    But stung by the criticism, and operating in a new conservative landscape intent on appealing to a much broader constituency, Quinn took elaborate steps to revise his previous writings in a letter responding to People for the American Way's charges last year. Now, he wrote, "Dr. King has come to symbolize the highest ideals of justice and dignity rather than the conflict that, 17 years ago, I thought might be part of the symbolism," adding, "I am pleased that the King Holiday is now honored all over the nation."

    As for David Duke: "As it turns out, Mr. Duke was a deceiver whose racist views I deplore," Quinn offered.

    Of Mandela, Quinn reflected in his letter to People for the American Way that he was gratified that the former prisoner "has become an internationally respected elder statesman."

    As for his reputation, Quinn says that he was gratified that his closest friends remained on his side, just as McCain had. "No one who really knows me thinks I'm a racist," he says.

    Both Quinn and Sullivan maintain that anyone who knows the Southern Partisan knows it's not racist either. Sullivan believes that, in order to be a racist, one has to be hateful or violent. "A racist is someone who fire-bombs churches or who hates people of a different race or thinks that a person of a different race shouldn't have the same rights that they do," Sullivan suggests. By that standard, he's confident that the Southern Partisan's content isn't racist.

    But thinking that one race is superior to the others doesn't always involve hate, Sullivan says, and so doesn't necessarily involve racism. "I have to fall back on my Christian faith," he says. "It calls upon us to treat each other with love. Could somebody love a person of another race and still think that they were inferior? Yes, I think so."

    And the idea that certain skills are more prominent in some groups than in others? That's just fact, Sullivan says. "There are some ethnic groups who for whatever reason do things better than other people," he asserts. Sullivan won't be drawn into a discussion of how that applies to intelligence or strength, but he eagerly applies the theory to food.

    "It's like cooking," Sullivan explains. "I'm a Sullivan. My ancestry is Scotch-Irish. There are no famous Scotch-Irish restaurants that I know of. But there are plenty of famous Italian places," he says. "It's just like Germans seem to be famous for engineering and the ability to design cars."

    "If I said Jews were better doctors, would that make me a racist?" Sullivan asks, wrapping up his point. "No."

    Sullivan thinks that race has little to with Southern Partisan anyway. He believes that examining the second quarter, 1998, issue of the magazine -- the issue the Ashcroft interview appears in -- shows that. "The cover story is about Hank Williams. I don't think it concentrates on the fact that he's a white man," Sullivan says. "A review of the Dinesh D'Souza book about the rise of Ronald Reagan, a column about fishing, one about auto racing, a review of the movie, 'The Apostle' ..."

    There are more pointed pieces, like competing reviews of the book "Confederates in the Attic," by the New Yorker'sTony Horwitz, on the lingering legacy of the Confederacy in the South. (One reviewer gives it a thumbs up review, calling it "generally favorable to the South"; the other a thumbs down review, decrying the book for "typical anti-South bias.") A review of the book "Jews and the American Slave Trade" praises author Saul S. Friedman for ridiculing the "cheap morality practiced today of judging the past by current standards."

    Sometimes, however, it's the smaller editorial items that can hold a nasty surprise. Flipping back to a 1989 issue, a section called "Short Stories/Tall Tales" features "Images From Another Time: Aunt Mary and Popo." Separate pages show illustrations of Popo and Aunt Mary, two former slaves, accompanied by short rhyming stories by Francis Springer .

    Popo is an old man who once managed to dance his way out of a lynching at the hands of soldiers (Union soldiers, of course). Before his mythical escape, those Northerners gave Popo an awful scare. "Some Yankee soldiers happened by and said they'd caught a Rebel spy. A crowd of women and old men and even children gathered then and begged to have the man turned loose; the soldiers answered with a noose." Damn Yankees!

    In the other poem, poor Aunt Mary drops in on the descendants of her "Massa" in the years after the Civil War looking for help. "She'd glean from each something to eat, some cash, and in return would treat her hosts to lively conversation," Springer writes. That conversation was a wistful recognition of the good old days of slavery and a full stomach. "Nobody was hungry then!" Aunt Mary says, recalling a feast that included "yams, a big fat hen, and chitlins, collard greens and HAM! But we been hungry since," she tells her host. "YAS MA'AM!"

  • By Alicia Montgomery

    Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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