Editor’s note: In the past ten years, we’ve seen a presidential impeachment, 9/11, war in Afghanistan, war in Iraq, and the first female Speaker. We’ve covered these events at National Review and National Review Online with Rich Lowry at the helm; this month Rich celebrates his tenth year as editor (he was named the third editor in National Review’s history in December 1997).
Where you are right now — www.nationalreview.com — is a big part of his vision as editor. He knew early on resources should be put online.
This week, we’ll be taking a tour of the last ten years in National Review, with some key pieces and issues.
This piece by Rich appeared in the February 5, 2001, issue of National Review. —KJL
“No one is suggesting he’s a racist,” commentator Mark Shields recently remarked of attorney general-designee John Ashcroft. In this, he was repeating a familiar liberal line. But his comment needs to be carefully parsed, because Shields wasn’t using “no one” in the strict sense meaning “no one” but in the loose sense, meaning, “Some people actually are calling him a racist.” Rep. Maxine Waters has said, “Senator Ashcroft acts like a racist, walks like a racist, and talks like a racist.” Of the ex-senator’s opposition to Judge Ronnie White rejected for a seat on the federal bench by Senate Republicans, led by Ashcroft Jesse Jackson complained, “It was an appeal to race.” Sen. Pat Leahy suggested the White controversy meant that we had “reverted to a time in [our] history when there was a color test on nominations.”
That’s hardly “no one.” But Mark Shields’s remark is noteworthy not just because it is inaccurate. It is part of an odd liberal two-step in the fight over Ashcroft’s confirmation: Race is not the issue, or so we’re told; and at the same time, it’s one of the chief issues. No one can question Ashcroft’s integrity, his more responsible critics concede; but his nomination should be rejected anyway, partly because he’s being called a racist by certain less responsible critics. Indeed, what is at stake in this nomination is an attempt to define racism down, to institute in public life a new racial McCarthyism that would disqualify any public official who is merely accused of racism, and render conservatism itself a form of de facto racism.
New York senator Chuck Schumer has allowed he doesn’t think Ashcroft is a racist, “but at certain instances, I don’t think he’s shown enough sensitivity toward America’s long and troubled history with race.” Activist Ralph Neas goes further: “We do not contend that he is a racist. That’s a straw man erected by his supporters.” Actually, it is a straw man erected by his detractors but that is a mere quibble. Neas finds Ashcroft unsuitable because of his “extraordinary racial insensitivity.”
There is a reason “insensitivity” became the most famous watchword of campus political correctness. It was useful to campus liberals because its elasticity served to make anyone potentially guilty of it. “Racism” is a word with a fairly precise meaning animus against individuals or groups based on race. The charge of racism is largely falsifiable, in that it can be evaluated in fairly objective terms (hence, its inconvenience to Ashcroft’s critics even Pat Leahy must admit he never heard Ashcroft “make a racist comment”). “Insensitivity,” in contrast, is more subjective; it’s a moving target that doesn’t depend on any identifiable attitude on the part of the offender, but on the sensibilities of those taking offense.
In the case of John Ashcroft, of course, it is black-activist groups (“civil-rights groups” is a misnomer) that are offended. It is on the authority of their professed outrage or fear that the likes of Wall Street Journal columnist Al Hunt chary of calling Ashcroft a racist himself hang their anti-Ashcroft case. Watch the two-step at work: “No one should doubt Mr. Ashcroft’s sincerity [i.e., by any objective standard, he’s not a racist],” Hunt writes. “But neither should anyone doubt that collectively, to many African-Americans, [his] positions suggest an insensitivity, or even hostility.”
Now, if it’s true that Ashcroft is a man of integrity, the worries of black groups should be dismissed as unfounded or trumped up. If, on the other hand, black groups are right that he is “hostile” to blacks, no one should be saying that he is a man of integrity. Both cannot be true. But Hunt and other Ashcroft critics square the circle by making the very fact that Ashcroft is being called a bigot regardless of the merits of the charge among the most damning counts against him. As Time’s Jack E. White summed up the case, “Ashcroft has consistently appealed to the right-wing of his party, even when his approach risked appearing racist” (emphasis added).
“The appearance of impropriety” is a standard Washington weasel phrase used to accuse people of corruption when there is no evidence of it. It, like “insensitivity,” has the advantage of being non-falsifiable. You may be able to prove that you didn’t take a bribe, but how can you ever prove that you didn’t “create an appearance” of doing so? Jack White’s “appearance of racism” and especially his “risk of the appearance . . .” are similar to “the appearance of impropriety.” So Ashcroft’s problem isn’t that, say, his Bob Jones degree or Southern Partisan interview actually demonstrates that he is a bigot, but that he created an opportunity for black groups to call him one hence he “risked appearing” racist.
Washington Post columnist Colbert King has also resorted to the two-step: “[Ashcroft’s] defenders pretend the main charge lodged against him is that he’s a racist. A few are saying that, but they don’t represent the majority. Besides, the racist charge has now become a red herring that diverts attention from a close look at what he stands for.” And how does King conclude? After a few paragraphs of “close” attention to what Ashcroft stood for in the Ronnie White case, he writes, “Ashcroft, in fact, calls to mind the example of Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, the aggressive opponent of desegregation at Little Rock’s Central High School.”
Well, which is it? Is it a diversion to call Ashcroft a racist, or appropriate to compare him to a vicious segregationist? For Ashcroft’s fiercest critics, of course, the very act of opposing a black judge proves his racial perfidy. Nan Aron of the Alliance for Justice calls Ashcroft’s opposition to Ronnie White “a hate crime.” But this position quickly collapses of its own reductive absolutism. By its logic, Ashcroft’s opposition to another black Clinton nominee to the federal bench, Frederica Massiah-Jackson, must also have been driven by racial animus. But we don’t hear much about Judge Massiah-Jackson, because she had cursed at prosecutors in the courtroom, and engendered the opposition of even Democratic district attorneys in Pennsylvania (her home state). Her example shows that sometimes shocking though it may seem it’s quite reasonable to oppose a black judge.
Again, in the case of White, Ashcroft’s more high-toned critics try a slippery argument. Al Hunt doesn’t charge Ashcroft with blatant racism, but accuses him of playing the “race card for political purposes.” The White controversy prompts Colbert King to make his comparison to Faubus, who the columnist maintains wasn’t a true-believing racist, but a cynical manipulator. Ashcroft, similarly, wasn’t motivated by racist sentiment, he just played to it: “He was motivated by opportunism, not racism; but the outcome was all the same.” But there is no evidence Ashcroft either appealed to racism or achieved a racist goal in defeating Judge White.
It was White’s dissent in the James Johnson case, calling for a re-trial of the quadruple-murderer, that provided Ashcroft with his most potent weapon against the judge. But Johnson the murderer was white, and the case didn’t have the slightest racial overtone. The only possible indication that Ashcroft played to racial feelings in the controversy was the mere fact that Judge White is black. So, the Hunt/King argument is simply another form of the crude idea that race, ipso facto, must be a factor in the rejection of any black nominee.
Or of any other minority, for that matter. New York Times columnist Frank Rich expands the case against Ashcroft, finding in his record a “truly ecumenical hazing of all minority groups.” Why? “He has not just attacked African-American candidates for federal jobs (including the distinguished surgeon general David Satcher), but has also targeted Asian-Americans (the assistant attorney general for civil rights, Bill Lann Lee) and homosexuals (Ambassador James Hormel).” But, by a similar argument, Rich can be said to be attacking evangelicals because of his opposition to Ashcroft, and may even be anti-gay because in his former career as a theater critic he must have sometimes found occasion to find fault with gay actors.
This absurd identification of individual nominees with their ethnic groups (oppose Satcher, oppose blacks collectively) works only one way: when conservatives oppose or criticize liberals. No one accused Linda Chavez’s opponents of being anti-Hispanic, or Clarence Thomas’s enemies of being racist. The New York Times is careful to dismiss such a line of argument when it comes to its own doubts about Ashcroft: Questions about “whether Mr. Ashcroft’s religious convictions might unduly influence Justice Department policies ought not be misrepresented by his supporters as an assault against his faith.” Oh, of course not.
Group identity applies only to liberals because all these arguments aren’t meant to be consistent or logical necessarily, but to help render an entire philosophical viewpoint racist, or at least insensitive, and therefore illegitimate. To adapt Frank Rich’s terms, it is the “hazing of conservatives.” The nub of the problem with Ashcroft is not Bob Jones or Southern Partisan but his substantive positions. And when it comes to issues, Ashcroft critics rely on the totemic power of certain words to prove his unfitness.
It is repeated again and again, for instance, without any elaboration, that Ashcroft as Missouri attorney general opposed “voluntary desegregation.” It is simply assumed that only a racist, or someone really insensitive, could possibly oppose a “desegregation” plan, especially a “voluntary” one. But as Richard Nadler pointed out in National Review Online, every Missouri attorney general from 1980 on fought the $3 billion, court-ordered desegregation plans, which always failed to further the integration of the schools in St. Louis and Kansas City (this must make Ashcroft’s successors William Webster and Jay Nixon, a Democrat, racists too).
Ashcroft’s positions on affirmative action and hate crimes (even though he actually signed a hate-crime bill in Missouri) are treated in a similar way as presumptive evidence of racial insensitivity. Hunt writes, “His record on race issues is pervasively negative.” Jack E. White says Ashcroft has “a horrendous record on race.” Pervasively negative. Horrendous. This is simply name-calling that frees Ashcroft’s critics from making any substantive argument. Do quotas hurt or help blacks? Are hate-crime laws a good or bad idea? Why argue when you can assert that such policies are essentially pro-black, ergo anyone who opposes them is negative, horrendous, anti-black?
This is an escape from argument that helps keep “civil rights” advocacy in America an infantile disorder. No claim need be rationally examined, no paranoia receive a reality check. Hunt writes, “One of the most serious criminal justice problems in America is the widespread perception by many African-Americans that the system is stacked against them. Whether exaggerated or not, it only will be exacerbated with John Ashcroft as attorney general.” So, another strike against Ashcroft: He will “exacerbate” the “exaggerated” sense of injustice felt by blacks.
If Ashcroft’s opponents prevail, national politics will take on the cast of campus debates on race. It will become out of bounds, essentially, to disagree with liberals: Conservatives are offensive to black groups, therefore they are insensitive, therefore they are unfit for office. This is a grab for ideological power, by the same McCarthyite, bullying means that has helped lend college campuses such as Brown and Antioch such a whiff of the authoritarian. By defeating Ashcroft, his critics will have cut off a good bit of the political spectrum from respectability. And they will have accomplished a most extraordinary and, one would think, counterproductive thing: making being called racist a sign of courage and good sense.