The real trick to borking someone is avoiding the deathblow temptation. The charges against Robert Bork were individually ludicrous (See “Unfairly Borking Ashcroft”). Of course Bork didn’t support the clubbing of (very cute) puppies, a federal mandate requiring parents to expose Santa Claus, or the round-the-clock atomic wedgie-ing of all social workers. The point was to get the allegations out there (a lesson well learned from some of our conservative brethren in the battles against Bill Clinton). Once these allegations are dropped at the media’s doorstep (or over the transom), they can line up like a fire brigade to pass the allegation hand-to-hand from one outlet to another.
If you go with the deathblow (Anita Hill, Juanita Broaddrick) and it doesn’t work, it will only make the intended recipient stronger — whether the allegation is true or not. But if a thousand accusations have just a thin veneer of truth, there’s no time to disprove them all. The sting of a thousand ants is more effective than a single scorpion (hey, don’t look at me like that; I got it from a fortune cookie).
In 1998, Ashcroft gave an interview to Southern Partisan magazine, a self-consciously reactionary journal of the Old South. Before I go any further, I should be careful to say I don’t honestly think I’ve ever read the magazine, though I’ve heard about it for years, mostly from liberals who are convinced it’s the in-house newsletter of the Republican party. I am sure there’s plenty of stuff in there I would not like, and I am sure there’s plenty of stuff in there that all “good” people are required to dislike in polite (read: liberal) company.
Anyway, as we all know, Sen. Ashcroft is a man so hateful that he was only elected five times to statewide office by the bigoted, racist people of Missouri. And he was elected by that throw-caution-to-the-wind cabal of principled bigots known as the National Governors’ Association, to lead them in their quest to repeal the Constitution.
Pundits and reporters have repeated this over and over again. Under the headline “Ashcroft Once Hailed Confederates,” an Associated Press story begins: “Sen. John Ashcroft, President-elect Bush’s choice to be America’s top law enforcement officer, once hailed Confederate war heroes as ‘patriots’…” Jack White of Time magazine just lays it out there for all to see: “In 1998 Ashcroft told the neo-segregationist magazine Southern Partisan that Confederate war heroes were ‘patriots.’”
Don’t you get it? Patriots! Has anyone checked his trunk for dynamite and The Turner Diaries!?!?
Now, my dictionary says that a “patriot” is someone “who loves his country” or, if you go back to the Latin, someone who loves the land of his forefathers. One need not revisit the arguments that made brother take up arms against brother, but is this so outlandish? I’ve seen a bunch of movies about the Civil War and even read some best-selling books about it, and I’ve got to say that a lot of these folks seemed to think they loved their country.
I’m pretty jazzed the North won the war, but come on. Why didn’t all of these pundits get bent out of shape when John McCain saluted the memory of his Confederate forefathers?
Oh, but it’s not just that. Ashcroft also told Southern Partisan that he didn’t like it when people called George Washington a racist. To tell you the truth, I don’t like it when people call George Washington a racist either. I’m not saying he wasn’t one, but the point is that being a racist is not what defined George Washington (in fact, he was the only slaveholding founder to free his slaves, upon his death). If all your kids learned at school about George Washington was that he was a white, racist slaveholder you might be a bit miffed too — wait, what do I mean, “if”? If you want to saw off the first four score and seven years of the Republic and simply say all non-abolitionists aren’t worth admiring, be my guest. But most calm people recognize that’s not reasonable or fair.
Interestingly, the ostensibly most damaging thing Ashcroft said in the interview is the least quoted. Ashcroft said that if it weren’t for the work of traditionalists at Southern Partisan and elsewhere, people might think that Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis sacrificed their fortunes solely for some “perverted agenda.”
Okay, I do think slavery in itself is a perverted agenda and some of what neo-segregationists do amounts to little more than slavery-denial. But, even in today’s academic climate it’s American History 101 that the Civil War was about more than just slavery. It wasn’t until the Gettysburg Address that one could even say that slavery became the heart and soul of the Civil War (just ask Garry Wills). Indeed, the whole reason these guys get into their efforts to minimize slavery is that they know it’s essentially indefensible. But that doesn’t mean Southern culture is indefensible (though those Southern poets do nothing for me).
But it really isn’t what Ashcroft said that’s so inflammatory. If it were, we’d see more quotes by him. No, instead what most critics do is simply assert that he talked to a “neo-segregationist” publication. Did Jimmy Carter endorse Playboy’s views when he gave them an interview? If I hadn’t chucked all of my old copies, I’d love to go back and come up with a list of everyone who now endorses everything in Hustler (published, of course, by the White House’s favorite defender of liberty, Larry Flynt) — especially all the gang rape, bestiality, and pedophilia. I certainly wouldn’t want people to think that everyone we interview at National Review Online agrees with me on anything and even I don’t think everyone who talks to The Nation honestly believes that Alger Hiss was framed or that if you talk to a reporter from Emerge you think it’s okay to depict Clarence Thomas as Aunt Jemima or a lawn jockey.
This guilt by association works great when it’s mixed in with other insinuations — about the Ronnie White nomination, Ashcroft’s (fictitious) opposition to legislation requiring the compiling of racial statistics, the slanderous suggestion by Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel that he opposed Holocaust reparations, the assertion that he is more “extreme” on abortion than other pro-lifers, etc. Add this to the entirely hysterical rhetoric of his opponents, such as Kweisi Mfume charging that Ashcroft has “consistently opposed civil rights,” and all the average person sees are what look like the tips of a thousand icebergs when it turns out they’re just a bunch of ice cubes bobbing on the currents.