Joe Conason's Journal

A Lott more? It's time to revisit John Ashcroft's connections with the neo-Confederates.

By Salon Staff
Published December 16, 2002 6:21PM (EST)

John Ashcroft and the neo-Confederates
If conservatives are sincere in their sudden agitation over Trent Lott's neo-Confederate sympathies -- and there is every reason to believe that many of them are -- then perhaps the time has come to take another look at John Ashcroft. He hasn't said anything lately as offensive as Lott's remarks at the Thurmond birthday celebration. But during his confirmation hearings, the attorney general's odd opinions and unsavory connections received less attention than they merited.

The questioning of Ashcroft in the spring of 2001 by the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee was barely competent, and his former colleagues took his demurrals at face value. Had the Senate attempted a serious investigation of Ashcroft's background, they would have discovered many resemblances to the Mississippi senator who now causes them such discomfort.

Like Lott, Ashcroft has lent his prestige to neo-Confederate publications and causes, notably the strange interview he gave to Southern Partisan magazine. And like Lott, he has cultivated connections with the Council of Conservative Citizens, which maintains its headquarters in his home state of Missouri.

While Ashcroft was running for reelection to the Senate against the late Mel Carnahan in 2000, he met secretly with a CCC leader named Thomas Bugel to discuss the fate of a CCC member indicted for plotting to murder an FBI agent, among other offenses. When that meeting was exposed following his nomination for attorney general, Ashcroft claimed through a spokeswoman that he didn't know about Bugel's association with the CCC.

Yet in addition to serving as the local president of the CCC, Bugel was for several years the leading segregationist on the St. Louis school board. Ashcroft had every reason to know exactly who Bugel is, because as attorney general and governor of Missouri, he too had played a divisive role in racial disputes. The strange story of Ashcroft's connections with the CCC is told here and here.

Ashcroft has never convincingly explained why he told the editors of Southern Partisan -- a periodical known for repeatedly praising the assassination of Abraham Lincoln -- that he admires their "traditionalist" defense of "Southern patriots" like Jefferson Davis (who is also Lott's favorite statesman). In that same interview he endorsed the legitimacy of the secessionist Missouri government, which fled to Texas during the Civil War.

Neither has Ashcroft ever provided a full account of his reasons for meeting with CCC president Bugel, to discuss the cases of Dr. Charles T. Sell, the indicted St. Louis dentist and CCC member. His office sent letters to federal authorities about Dr. Sell's case at the behest of the CCC (as did his fellow Missouri senator Kit Bond). It would be interesting to know whether crime-busting Ashcroft ever sent a letter to the Justice Department that he now heads on behalf of any other federal defendant.

Ashcroft's original explanations and excuses were no more credible than those initially offered by Lott. Republicans determined to reform their party ought to demand the truth, and a complete repudiation of segregation, neo-Confederate ideology and the CCC, from the man whose job it is to enforce the nation's civil rights laws.
[10:50 a.m. PST, Dec. 16, 2002]

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