Oct 13, 1999 at 4:00 am
What a coincidence.

Sen. John Ashcroft doesn't look so great on a racially charged issue again.

How do you like that?

This time, our color-blind senator has been victimized by the misleading appearance that his holy crusade against Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White was -- let us say it gently -- racially challenged. Thanks to Ashcroft and sidekick Sen. Kit Bond, White was rejected last week for a federal judgeship, the first such vote by the full U.S. Senate since Robert Bork was cast aside 12 years ago.

It turns out that White happens to be an African-American, the first (and only one) to serve on the state Supreme Court, so poor Ashcroft gets accused of being -- let us say it gently -- not so good racially, when all he was trying to do was assassinate White's character without regard to race, creed or religion.

Sure, Ashcroft maliciously distorted White's judicial record, maligning him as "pro-criminal" because of some instances when White voted to overturn a death sentence. Sure, Ashcroft overlooked the 41 times when White voted to uphold a death sentence and the six of those times he actually wrote the court's opinion.

And, yes, four of Ashcroft's own appointees have voted to overturn more death sentences than White. And, yes, the senator knows as an attorney that these are technical issues, not referenda on the death penalty, and that the whole debate is meaningless.

But come on. Ashcroft's real target is Gov. Mel Carnahan, a white guy, for crying out loud, and the only reason he trashed White on the death-penalty thing is that the polls show Carnahan took a hit for listening to the pope and commuting some killer's sentence when he shouldn't have last winter. Get the connection? Carnahan appointed White.

How does that make Ashcroft -- let us say it gently -- not so progressive racially? I mean, let's be fair, this isn't nearly as sweeping in its effect on black people as Ashcroft's career-long efforts to fight school desegregation, as attorney general, as governor and now even as senator.

Next thing you know, someone will be calling Ashcroft -- let us say it gently -- a separate-but-equal kind of guy on public education. Then, they'll try to twin that up with his equally passionate opposition to virtually all affirmative-action programs, which he so joyously bashes as "unfair preferences" and "quotas" on the stump, and pretty soon they'll try to find some common theme that Ashcroft is -- let us say it gently -- some sort of "race-baiter" guy, or something.

How unfair.

OK, so the senator seems to be at his most vocal when there's one of those people involved. Yes, he has a knack for getting his best national airtime by caustically attacking, say, a black like surgeon-general nominee Henry Foster or, say, federal-judge nominee Frederica Massiah-Jackson or, say, surgeon-general nominee David Satcher. Or now Ronnie White.

But wait a minute. He also savaged Bill Lann Lee, an Asian-American and not a black guy, when he was nominated to the nation's top civil-rights-enforcement post. So it's grossly unfair to say the senator is biased strictly against African-Americans.

What poor Ashcroft needs is someone to tell his racial story fairly. You know, like the quarterly magazine Southern Partisan, where blacks are known as "Negroes" and where a man can still read about the virtues of the Confederacy without worrying about political correctness.

Ashcroft gave those nice folks an exclusive interview last year. I'm pretty sure it's exclusive, because I don't recall him sharing these thoughts in the mainstream press:

"You've got a heritage of defending Southern patriots like Lee, Jackson and Davis," Ashcroft told Southern Partisan. "Traditionalists must do more. I've got to do more. We've all got to stand up and speak in this respect, or else we'll be taught that these people were giving their lives, subscribing their sacred fortunes and their honor to some perverted agenda."

Ashcroft was asked what he thought about a schoolgirl being sent home for wearing a Confederate flag on her knapsack.

"Well, you know, I was down in Texas the other day and someone asked, "Where was Missouri in the Civil War.' I said, "Frankly it was in Texas.' After Fort Sumter, the legislature seceded, and they were run out when the federal troops came in and they set up a government in exile down in Texas.

"The rights of individuals to respect our history is a right that the politically correct crowd wants to eliminate, and this is just not acceptable. Take those history standards: the standards make no mention of Lee's military genius! I guess there's too much space devoted to Madonna."

Whoa. Now there's some candor for you.

But, sadly, some narrow-minded person is likely to twist these kind words for the Old South and charge that the senator is -- let us say it gently -- just a teensy bit too admiring of what the Confederacy was all about -- and next thing you know they'll be overlooking his "top-notch record on diversity."

That's how David James, Ashcroft's deputy communications director, describes it. To hear James tell it, the senator is virtually a one-man Rainbow Coalition, a fellow who has voted to confirm more than 75 minority and female judges as a senator, who appointed the first woman to the Missouri Supreme Court (he didn't mention she has voted 24 times to overturn death-penalty rulings) and the first black to a major judgeship in western Missouri.

Why, Ashcroft is justly proud of his commitment to diversity, James told me.

And how many blacks are on his staff now? That would be one black and two other people of color out of 36 employees in Washington, D.C., and Missouri.

Not bad, I'd say. Well, let's call it "good, not great."

But when you consider the bad racial luck Ashcroft has been having, the way he always just seems to be on the -- let's put it gently -- "whites' rights side of the fence -- it's great to hear that he's bullish on diversity these days.

Otherwise, someone might mistake him for -- let's put it gently -- a racist.


Here is Kit Bond on Ronnie White, on the record, at his Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on May 14, 1998:

"My close friends and colleagues in the practice of law who've had the pleasure of working with Judge White over several years have assured me that he is a man of the highest integrity and honor. Judge White understands the role of the Federal District Judge is to interpret the law, not make the law.

"I've always believed that one of the most important duties I have as a Senator is to evaluate carefully the nominees for the federal judiciary. I believe Judge White has the necessary qualifications and character traits for this most important job."

The emphasis was added by me.

Last week, after helping kill White's nomination, Bond defended himself against angry charges from the black community that he had lied to them during his re-election campaign about his support for the judge. He said he had only been able to give the White nomination careful consideration in the past two weeks.

Shall we read those italicized words again?

Spokesman Dan Hubbard gamely defended Bond, saying he felt compelled to revisit his position on White after receiving opposition in the law- enforcement community, including a petition signed by 72 of the state's 114 sheriffs opposing White. One sheriff, angry that White had voted (on procedural grounds only) to overturn the conviction of his wife's killer, had gathered the petitions.

"The senator has great respect for the men and women who put their life on the line to defend our communities every day," Hubbard told me. "He obviously was swayed by their opposition to Judge White."

Hubbard also said politics had nothing to do with Bond's decision.


White's vote took place in April 1998, before the Judiciary Committee hearings at which Bond extolled his virtues. But regardless of the timing or the angry letters, the really sad part is that Kit Bond, the attorney, knows better than to believe that an emotional reaction to one technical ruling should have mattered in the confirmation process of a federal judge.

Kit Bond's integrity should have mattered.