Even by Washington's standards, the ability of John Ashcroft to reinvent himself has been a wonder to behold. Just a year ago, squeaking through Senate confirmation as attorney general, Ashcroft found himself shadowed by his own praise for leaders of the Confederacy. Now he's able to tout himself as a disciple of Martin Luther King Jr.
It's quite a scam, and Ashcroft couldn't have pulled it off without major help from news media. Mainstream journalists have declined to subject the attorney general to the most elementary comparisons between present and past stances on race-related issues.
With scant challenge from journalists, Ashcroft is presenting himself as someone with a fervent commitment to racial equality. His lofty pronouncements -- floating like overinflated beach balls in dire need of sharp pins -- are held aloft by the prevailing media winds.
To be sure, when it comes to the undermining of civil liberties since mid-September, the attorney general has faced appreciable criticism from commentators. When the president takes aim at the Bill of Rights, a flak-catcher at the Justice Department comes in handy. Several weeks ago, an unnamed White House adviser explained to a New York Times reporter that Ashcroft "is a willing lightning rod to take the heat off the president on these very difficult criminal justice decisions."
But in other respects, Ashcroft is getting a pass from journalists. When he presided at a recent Justice Department event commemorating King, much of his speech aired live on CNN. "I'm personally privileged and we are all privileged to follow in the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's footsteps in defending freedom and ensuring justice," Ashcroft proclaimed. Viewers didn't get a clue about Ashcroft's long record of opposition to civil rights -- and his publicly expressed affection for the Confederacy.
In early December, referring to "American Taliban" John Walker, the attorney general declared: "History has not looked kindly upon those who have forsaken their countries to go and fight against their countries, especially with organizations that have totally disrespected the rights of individuals."
Such a description would certainly apply to the Confederacy and its war effort for the preservation of slavery. So, why has Ashcroft gone out of his way to say that he looks kindly upon -- and even venerates -- Confederate leaders?
In 1998, Ashcroft was interviewed by the quarterly Southern Partisan -- which, according to The New Republic, "serves as the leading journal of the neo-Confederacy movement" and has published "a gumbo of racist apologias" for two decades.
Sen. Ashcroft was full of praise for Southern Partisan -- and for leaders committed to slavery at the time of the Civil War. "Your magazine also helps set the record straight," he said. "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."
When Ashcroft went to the crash site of United Flight 93 in Pennsylvania on Sept. 20, his stirring words reached millions via national television and radio: "It is impossible to stand in a field in Pennsylvania, at the site of heroic devotion and activity, without thinking of the words of Abraham Lincoln, who spoke 140 years ago at Gettysburg."
What would we say about someone who gushed with adulatory rhetoric about Winston Churchill and the heroism at Normandy just a few years after fervently insisting that Nazis like Gen. Erwin Rommel did not have a "perverted agenda"?
Now that Ashcroft has gotten into a groove of speaking reverentially about Lincoln and claiming to walk in the footsteps of Martin Luther King, some media skepticism is overdue. But these days, major news outlets seem content to help Ashcroft reinvent himself by leaving unmentioned some of his career's relevant milestones -- as recent as May 1999, when Ashcroft gave the commencement address and accepted an honorary degree at Bob Jones University, widely known for its racial and religious bigotry.
As governor of Missouri, in 1988 and again in 1989, Ashcroft vetoed measures passed overwhelmingly by the state legislature that sought to make it possible for volunteer deputy registrars from nonpartisan organizations to engage in voter registration in the city of St. Louis, which was about 50 percent black at the time. The bills were efforts to equalize access to voter registration by ending policies that made registering to vote much more difficult for the city's residents than for those in the mainly white suburbs.
It's true that Ashcroft has walked in historic footsteps of civil rights struggles. But those footsteps mostly belonged to George Wallace. Not Martin Luther King. Too bad so many journalists haven't noticed -- or prefer to dispense with history.
Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media." His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.