George W Bush's nominee to be the next US attorney general has been
linked to an extremist pro-gun lobbying group which believes that
the answer to America's school shootings is to allow pupils to be
armed in the classroom.
The revelation that former senator John Ashcroft has recent links
with the militant Gun Owners of America (GOA) group is the latest
twist in an increasingly impassioned partisan battle over a nomination
which has become a major trial of political strength for Mr Bush.
Even many conservatives consider the GOA to be extremist. After
a shooting at an Oregon school in May 1998 in which two pupils were
killed by a fellow student, it issued a press release headed: "Lesson
of school shootings: More guns needed at schools".
Its director, Larry Pratt, was forced to resign as co-chairman
of Pat Buchanan's 1996 presidential bid after news leaked of his
links with the Ku Klux Klan, the Aryan Nations and rightwing militia
groups. Mr Pratt is also head of an anti-immigrant organisation
called English First.
It emerged yesterday that Mr Ashcroft wrote a friendly handwritten
letter in March 1998 to Mr Pratt, thanking him for drawing his attention
to provisions in a juvenile justice bill which imposed increased
penalties for gun law offences. As a result of the GOA's lobbying,
Mr Ashcroft, who had originally been a sponsor of the bill, withdrew
his support for the legislation.
The letter was sent on Senate notepaper and was addressed "Dear
Larry" and signed "Thanks! John".
This is not the only known link between Mr Ashcroft and Mr Pratt.
The two men know each another 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. The CNP's membership is almost a who's who of US conservatism
and includes the Republican congressional leaders Senator Trent
Lott and Congressman Tom DeLay.
The revelation of the link with Mr Pratt came as two other allegations
about Mr Ashcroft's extreme rightwing links also surfaced.
In the first, it was confirmed that Mr Ashcroft took time off from
his bitter senatorial contest last September to meet Thomas Bugel,
the president of the St Louis chapter of the Council of Conservative
Citizens, to discuss the case of a CCC member, Charles Sell, jailed
by federal authorities on charges of conspiring to murder an FBI
The CCC is the successor organisation of the Citizens Council,
which led the fight against integration in the South in the 1950s
and 60s. The CCC, whose supporters also include Senator Lott and
Senator Jesse Helms, opposes interracial marriage and non-white
immigration, and believes black people are genetically less intelligent
than whites. It is currently mobilising to try to defeat a statewide
referendum in Mississippi in April to remove the Confederate flag
from the state flag.
Meanwhile, the ultra-conservative Bob Jones University in South
Carolina confirmed that it possessed a transcript of reportedly
inflammatory remarks made by Mr Ashcroft in a May 1999 speech there.
The Senate judiciary committee, where Mr Ashcroft faces confirmation
hearings next week, had asked the university to supply a transcript,
after rumours surfaced about the speech.
Bob Jones University, whose graduates include the Rev Ian Paisley,
was at the centre of a political storm last year when Mr Bush made
a speech there to rally conservative support for his presidential
bid after he lost the New Hampshire primary to John McCain. The
university had a ban on inter-racial dating and supports a doctrinaire
anti-Catholic view of the world.
Mr Ashcroft's nomination has become the latest flashpoint of America's
political culture wars, with both sides preparing for a major confrontation
next week. On Thursday, Mr Bush urged Mr Ashcroft's opponents to
"tone down their rhetoric".
Mr Ashcroft spent yesterday trying to shore up support among moderate
Republican senators who support abortion rights, an issue he strongly
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001