Only yesterday pundits assured us that George W. Bush, who lost the popular election by half a million votes, would tread softly and govern meekly. "He has no mandate to do anything except Be Nice," Molly Ivins wrote in the December Progressive. But who needs a mandate, with the mainstream media resolutely ignoring the still-unfolding scandal of the Florida election? Bush is making hay while the sun shines–paying off his debt to business with the nominations of Elaine Chao, late of the Heritage Foundation, for Labor; Gale Norton, lead-paint champion, for Interior; and Christie Whitman, governor of the state with the second-worst air pollution in the country (Texas is first), for EPA. Over at HHS, anti-choicers get Tommy Thompson–whose devotion to welfare reform provides a note of continuity with the worst aspects of the outgoing Clinton Administration. Most ominous, the Christian and loony right gets its reward for keeping quiet during the campaign: the nomination of John Ashcroft for Attorney General.
How far to the right is Ashcroft? As I write, the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee are doing their best to help him obscure his ghastly twenty-five-year record on abortion, guns, women's rights, gay rights, the separation of church and state. A rare exception was Ted Kennedy, who closely questioned the nominee on his crusade as Missouri's Attorney General against voluntary school desegregation. But so far the only senator who has publicly said she will vote no is Barbara Boxer, never a Nation favorite, while "progressive" stalwarts like Paul Wellstone and Russell Feingold (who was particularly fawning and vacuous in his questioning), not to mention Tom Daschle and Joe Biden, have all said they were inclined to vote yes (Wellstone and Biden later backpedaled after an outcry). You'd think the Democrats had lost the popular election! Unless Ashcroft is discovered to be sleeping with Barney Frank, his confirmation looks assured. Who in the Senate can be expected to care that as governor of Missouri, Ashcroft twice vetoed bills that would have equalized voter-registration procedures in mostly black and mostly white counties, given that not one senator would sponsor the Congressional Black Caucus's January 6 protest of the Electoral College vote? As the Last Marxist says, the Republicans really are reactionaries, but the Democrats are only pretending to be liberals.
If Ashcroft is not too far out to be confirmed, who is? Accepting an honorary degree at Bob Jones University in 1999, Ashcroft proclaimed that in America, "We have no king but Jesus." (Why aren't Jews up in arms about that?) This is a man who, on the eve of his swearing-in as a Missouri senator, anointed himself with Crisco, supposedly after the manner of the Hebrew kings. Can it be that Barbara Boxer is the only senator discomfited by the thought of an Attorney General who thinks the Bible instructs him to put salad oil on his head?
John Ashcroft is not just a conservative: He stands at the place where Christian fanatics, anti-choicers, militiamen, gun nuts and white supremacists come together. As Chip Berlet reports, he has acknowledged meeting with the head of the St. Louis chapter of the racist Council of Conservative Citizens to discuss the case of a member jailed on federal charges of conspiring to murder an FBI agent. He defended the leaders of the Confederacy in Southern Partisan, the neo-Confederate magazine that has done a brisk business in T-shirts celebrating the assassination of Abraham Lincoln (Timothy McVeigh was wearing one when arrested). If Southern Partisan rings a bell, by the way, it's because when editor Richard Quinn was discovered to be managing John McCain's South Carolina campaign, a Bush spokesperson criticized McCain for associating with him.
Among Ashcroft's many connections on the far side is Larry Pratt, who, as head of Gunowners of America, functions as a kind of liaison between the militia movement and Capitol Hill. A handwritten note from Ashcroft is posted on Pratt's website (www.gunowners.org). According to the Manchester Guardian, "the two men know each other from a secretive but highly influential rightwing religious group called the Council for National Policy, of which Mr Pratt is a member and whose meetings Mr Ashcroft has attended." Tom DeLay and Trent Lott also belong.
In a glowing profile in CounterPunch (July 1/15, 1999), Alexander Cockburn uncritically paraphrases the position for which Pratt is best known–that the surest proof against Columbine-type school shootings is to arm teachers to shoot students "just like they do in South Africa, where one instructor recently gunned down a bellicose student." South Africa is one of the world's most violent countries, with a long history of serious corporal punishment–with whips–in its dismal black schools, so it's not immediately obvious why the United States should follow its lead even if Pratt's tale is true. But the South African Consul says there is no such policy and knows of no such incident having occurred, nor did a media search turn one up. Need one point out as well that millions of pistol-packing teachers present something of a danger to defenseless schoolchildren? On the other hand, since Pratt also believes in guns for kids (Ashcroft's note was to thank Pratt for enlightening him about the antigun provisions in the juvenile justice bill), the students could just shoot back.
Pratt's website is a grab bag of nuttiness ("What the Bible Says About Gun Control"; "Guns Save Health Care Costs"). But it would be wrong to see him as a marginal, if colorful, figure. CounterPunch doesn't mention it, but Pratt has been a leader of the hard-core Christian right for many years: He led the walkout of religious conservatives at the White House Conference on Families in 1980; he has fundraised for Operation Rescue. In 1996, he was co-chairman of Pat Buchanan's presidential campaign until he was forced to resign when his links to Christian Identity and white-supremacist groups became public. Today Pratt pals around with Lott, DeLay and Ashcroft–whom Bush Senior reportedly considered for the Attorney General post but rejected as too extreme to be confirmed.
That was then, this is now.