There is something about John Ashcroft that prompts some liberal journalists to write the most curious things. Take Mr. Michael Powell, whose thinly disguised hit job on Ashcroft appears in the Style section of Tuesday's Washington Post. Mr. Powell's article ostensibly explores the fascination of some conservatives for the southern cause in the Civil War. To buttress the charge, repeated so often over the last several weeks, that the Attorney General designee is a racist and a Confederate sympathizer, Mr. Powell cites a speech that then-Senator Ashcroft delivered to the Claremont Institute a few years ago.
It's a strange sign of the times that the words "Claremont Institute" and "Confederate sympathizer" should even appear in the same sentence. It is a bit silly, and insulting. The Institute may be described fairly as "conservative." It is also fair to say that some conservatives slight the role of slavery in the Civil War and thus give the Confederacy a glory it does not merit.
But we at the Claremont Institute have held for more than two decades that no greater teacher of equality and liberty exists than Abraham Lincoln, who demonstrated the incompatibility of slavery with the Founders' ideals of limited, constitutional government. Not to put too fine a point on it, had Mr. Ashcroft praised the Confederacy at a Claremont Institute event, there is a very good chance that the Gentleman from Missouri would have been chased off the stage.
So, what did Sen. Ashcroft say? He spoke, as he often does, about the dangers of historical revisionism. He criticized the controversial national history standards, which were condemned by the United States Senate, 99-1, in 1995. Mr. Powell paraphrases the Senator to suggest he was disappointed that references to Robert E. Lee were expunged to include references to the Ku Klux Klan. Here is what Ashcroft really said:
She (Lynne Cheney, then-chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities) watched as references to Robert E.Lee, as references to the Wright Brothers and Thomas Edison, as references to Paul Revere were taken out of the history textbooks and replaced by references — 17 of them, as a matter of fact — to the Ku Klux Klan. She watched as the history standards became a recipe for disenchanting students with American history, for rendering in them a sense of shame...
Ashcroft's opponents also make much of his 1998 interview with Southern Partisan magazine. In fact, Mr. Powell quotes from it at the beginning of his article. In that interview, Ashcroft expresses not the slightest support for slavery or racism. Quite the opposite. In a passage ignored by Mr. Powell and just about everyone else in the major media, Ashcroft again speaks indignantly against "revisionists" who have falsely attempted to turn America's Founders into defenders of slavery.
Here is the full quotation:
Revisionism is a threat to the respect that Americans have for their freedoms and liberty that was at the core of those who founded this country, and when we see George Washington, the founder of our country, called a racist, that is just total revisionist nonsense, a diatribe against the values of America. Have you read Thomas West's book Vindicating the Founders.
Interviewer: I've met Professor West, and I read one of his earlier books, but not that one.
Ashcroft: I wish I had another copy: I'd send it to you. I gave it away to a newspaper editor. West virtually disassembles all of these malicious attacks the revisionists have brought against our founders." Ashcroft was referring to Claremont Institute Senior Fellow Thomas G. West's 1997 book, Vindicating the Founders. That book showed in detail that the leading Founders were slavery opponents.
After calling historical revisionism a "threat" to "the respect that Americans have for their freedoms and liberty," and praising West's efforts to vindicate the Founders, Ashcroft continues with the words for which he is now being assailed:
Your magazine also helps set the record straight. You've got a heritage of doing that, of defending Southern patriots like [Robert E.] Lee, [Stonewall] Jackson and [Jefferson] Davis. 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.
Elsewhere in Tuesday's Post, columnist E.J. Dionne quotes that last sentence, and writes:
Was slavery not a 'perverted agenda'? . . . It was linked to the right of the states to maintain slavery against the wishes of the federal government. What exactly was Ashcroft trying to say?
The "perverted agenda" to which Ashcroft refers is clearly the political ideology of pro-slavery, which he rejects completely. Surely Mssrs. Powell and Dionne would have known that. All they had to do was read what the man said. Liberals today generally agree with President Clinton, who said in a 1997 speech that Thomas Jefferson's view of equality meant that "you had to be white, you had to be male, and . . . you had to own property."
Because many liberals misunderstand the founding so badly, they believe in a "living Constitution" whose meaning changes with the times. The record shows that Ashcroft subscribes to the original definition of equality and liberty: that all human beings deserve to be free and to keep the property they earn with their own hands, rather than have it taken away by a government that pretends to know better than they do what to do with that property. Senior Fellow Tom West has written an article that shows the lengths to which Ashcroft's detractors have gone to smear him.