WITH REPUBLICANS in an open bearhug and Democrats bent over as jockey lanterns, the US Senate is doing much more than confirming John Ashcroft as attorney general. It has reconfirmed that its beacon does not burn in the interest of justice. It is not here to heal a nation gashed by a presidential election where the winner lost in the broad daylight of the popular vote but won in the much dimmer backrooms of Tallahassee.
The Ashcroft hearings remind us that the first priority of the Senate is not America's trauma. Its actions of coalescence and conciliation are not for the citizens. They are to maintain its own congeniality, appallingly easy for white, straight men to do.
After two days of hearing Ashcroft swear that he will repress his entire political life of opposing abortion, affirmative action, gay and lesbian rights, gun control, and school desegregation, after hearing him claim that his regressive ideology and reverence for pro-slavery Civil War leaders will never taint anything he does at the Justice Department, the Democrats blew out their candles of vigilance and began conceding to Ashcroft.
Joseph Biden of Delaware, after challenging Ashcroft on his praise of Confederate leaders, said, ''I just hope when you're attorney general you will understand you've got to reach out.'' Herb Kohl of Wisconsin said, ''You are likely to be confirmed, as we all know.''
Russ Feingold of Wisconsin said that Ashcroft's conservative ideology should not be a factor in judging his fitness, even if those views were ''alarming.'' Zell Miller of Georgia announced his support of Ashcroft by saying ''I would not vote to confirm someone who I thought was a bigot or would hamper the cause of African-Americans.''
The sham was so over by Wednesday that it became disgusting to allow it to continue with yesterday's testimony of Ronnie White, the Missouri judge who was blocked from the federal bench by Ashcroft and the Republicans. White was asked to show up in order to say how Ashcroft grossly twisted his record two years ago, saying he was ''pro-criminal,'' when White has generally upheld death-penalty sentences on the Missouri Supreme Court.
The sight of White was one that was known all too well by qualified people of color and women who are denied promotions. Liberal Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee apologized profusely for how the Senate, as Dianne Feinstein said, was ''totally blindsided'' by Ashcroft's attack on White.
Conservative Republicans patronized White. They told White how proud they were of his bootstrap childhood in segregated neighborhoods and how pleased they were that their petty, party-line ignorance of Ashcroft's distortions did not make him bitter. Orrin Hatch, Arlen Specter, Sam Brownback, and Jeff Sessions all said they were sure White would keep doing a wonderful job, way down upon the Missouri River.
Buried in the right wing's defusing of ideology as a weapon against Ashcroft was how it has used ideology as a nuclear bomb to sink many nominees of President Clinton, a peculiar number of whom, like White, are African-American. Joycelyn Elders was forced to resign as surgeon general over suggesting that masturbation be taught as part of sex education. Henry Foster was blocked for surgeon general because he had performed abortions.
Lani Guinier was blocked from running the Justice Department's civil rights division after being called a quota queen. Last summer, USA Today reported that since 1997, the rate that the Republican-led Senate has refused to confirm nominees of color for federal judgeships was two-and-a-half times higher than the rejection rate of white candidates.
While the confirmation process for white male candidates takes about five months, it took eight months for candidates of color and white women.
But a straight, right-wing white man need not sweat in the Senate to escape his own ideology. After all, the Senate is a family of no black people, no openly gay people, no poor people, and not enough women to defuse the machismo of missile diplomacy.
In this family, Ashcroft is not a danger to the community. He is merely an eccentric relative who occasionally has to be reminded that Stonewall Jackson is dead.
While many African-American nominees of President Clinton were derailed for their alarming thoughts, Ashcroft is now on the express track to the office of attorney general. The coming years will tell whether he represses his entire political life. If he does not, America cannot claim to be totally blindsided.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company