President George W. Bush’s nominee for attorney general, John Ashcroft, must wonder why he’s gotten so much heat for comments he made about the Confederacy. After all, in the ultra-conservative circles he frequents, there’s nothing taboo about his unreconstructed opinions — even his likely future boss has a soft spot in his heart for the South’s lost cause.

Several members of the Republican elite — including former President George Bush — have gone to considerable lengths to establish their credibility with the neo-Confederate movement, a political phenomenon in which states’ rights advocacy, Christian fundamentalism, anti-immigrant sentiment and virulent racism intersect.

Ashcroft has come under fire for granting an interview to the leading neo-Confederate publication, Southern Partisan, but he’s not the only Republican bigwig to schmooze with the publication. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, as well as Senators Phil Gramm and Jesse Helms, and Rep. Dick Armey, have also been interviewed by a magazine that Ashcroft praised for “defending Southern patriots” such as Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson and Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Southern Partisan does a good deal more than promote Southern pride. A few years back, one of its columnists asked if there was “a Latin nation that has successfully practiced democracy even as a formal system.” Answering his own question in the negative, the columnist, Reid Buckley, then argued that the problem “was the temperament of the people” — an immutable racial characteristic. Buckley concluded that “Negroes, Asians and Orientals, Hispanics, Latins and Eastern Europeans, have no temperament for democracy, never had and probably never will.”

Other overtly racist outfits such as the Council of Conservative Citizens — a descendant of the Citizens Councils that opposed desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s — also have friends in high places. According to The Washington Post, the CCC, which denounces racial intermarriage as “white genocide,” got Georgia Rep. Bob Barr, a Republican, to deliver the keynote address at the group’s semiannual convention in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 1998.

Lott has also addressed a CCC gathering and has written for the organization’s newsletter, the Citizen Informer. The Senate majority leader, who was forced to renounce the CCC after The Washington Post revealed his ties to the organization, lauded the group in 1992 for its defense of “the right principles and the right philosophy.”

The CCC’s embodiment of the right principles and the right philosophy can be found on the group’s Web site, where a “Shop-Right” link peddles racist and xenophobic goods. One bumper sticker hawked on the Web page urges protection of the Mississippi state flag, which has the Confederate flag incorporated in it. The sales pitch for the bumper stickers warns: “Once again, the Forces of Darkness are on the hunt for Confederate flags. Mississippi is the current target for the NAACP gangsters.”

Another sales blurb on the page, appearing beneath a bumper sticker calling North Carolina “Mexico’s newest colony,” exhorts right-thinking people to “send a message to all those greasers who sneak into this country and spread poverty, disease and lawlessness wherever they go.”

The CCC’s allies in the neo-Confederate movement include the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which, according to the award-winning investigative magazine Southern Exposure, received an official letter from the state of Texas signed by then Gov. Bush. He also wrote a congratulatory letter on the 100th anniversary of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization that has been criticized for sponsoring books by far-right authors who offer revisionist interpretations of the slave trade. In addition, Southern Exposure found that Bush wrote a fundraising letter for the Museum of the Confederacy’s annual ball — an event in which white guests dress in antebellum attire and party in a former ironworks where slaves manufactured war materials for the Confederate Army.

Bush and other conservative Republicans who associate with these neo-Confederate organizations and institutions are bowing to broad neo-Confederate influence in the American South. State governments officially endorse the Confederacy in South Carolina, where the Confederate flag still flies on the grounds of the state Capitol, and in Georgia and Mississippi, where the “Stars and Bars” are part of the states’ flags.

Then there’s Virginia, which has a state holiday honoring Lee and Jackson. Until this year, the holiday coincided with the federal holiday commemorating the birth of slain civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. These official expressions of Confederate sympathies reflect widespread popular sentiment — the kind that’s on display at places such as Stone Mountain, Georgia, where a mammoth sculpture depicting Lee, Jackson and Davis draws more than a million tourists each year.

Ashcroft’s affinity for the Confederacy, then, must be seen as part of something much bigger, something that seems pretty normal to a lot of people in the United States — including some of those who run it.

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