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Is Ashcroft an Extremist?

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

The liberal public interest outfits have rushed to the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify on the theme that John Ashcroft, Bush’s nominee to run the Justice Department, is athwart the national consensus, “too extreme” to be confirmed as US Attorney General, as Ralph Neas of People for The American Way put it. This alleged athwartness is attributed to Ashcroft’s Christian fundamentalism, support for the Second Amendment and imputed racism. Eleanor Smeal, President of the Feminist Majority has taken the same tack:”Women’s organizations are justifiably outraged over Bush’s appointment of right, wing, anti-women’s rights extremists. Both Ashcroft and [Wisconsin governor Tommy]Thompson [Bush’s nominee to run HHS] want to criminalize abortion and make it a felony.”

Among other malfeasances Ashcroft is charged with the liberals as being the driving force behind “charitable choice,” the contracting-out of federal functions to private religious organizations not covered under federal anti-discrimination law. One witness before the Senate Judiciary Committee was Professor Dunn who teaches at the divinity school at Wake Forest. In the hearings, he harshly denounced Ashcroft as “the principle architect of charitable choice legislation” and stated correctly that “Having one’s tax dollars taken by government coercion and turned over to pervasively sectarian outfits to do good threatens everyone’s civil and religious liberties.” No doubt about it. Ashcroft is hot for charitable choice and for a big role for “faith-based organizations”. So is George Bush, who made them a very big feature in his sparse list of campaign specifics.

But who accepted charitable choice as part of the Personal Responsibility Act of 1996, the welfare reform law that Al Gore pressed Bill Clinton to sign, and which Gore ringingly praised him for signing all last year? In his recent campaign Gore spoke about a larger role for faith-based organizations almost as often as Bush, despite the obvious fact that in practical terms this means funneling federal dollars to religious groups in the business of discriminating against religious or sexual preferences they don’t care for. There are many very fine faith-based organizations, but this doesn’t mean we have to approve of God-thumpers running drug rehab programs with federal money, hectoring addicts or former addicts that the only way forward for them is to acknowledge the existence of a Higher Power and to take Christ into their lives.

So where’s the “extremism” of Ashcroft? Given the Christian pietism that is compulsory in Washington, he looks entirely mainstream to me, except he appears to take his religion seriously. Scaremongering about Roe v Wade, Gore’s central strategy last fall, is an increasingly threadbare tactic, particularly since First Lady Laura Bush has made it her initial investment of political capital to insist that it shouldn’t be touched by her husband or his administration. (As for Bush’s reversal of government policy on financing population control overseas, I for one do not lament any discomfiture of the Malthusians. Let them get private money from the Rockefeller crowd, always zealous to fund such enterprises.

Even before Laura Bush made her ringing pronouncement Ashcroft had told the Senate Judiciary Committee he would never mess with Roe v Wade. The Republicans aren’t crazy, as Senastor Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania made clear in those same hearings when he said, “We do have very firm commitments on the record from Senator Ashcroft that he’s not going to move to overturn Roe v Wade by constitutional amendment. And the fact is, he couldn’t if he tried. We’ve had a Republican Congress for six years and now going into eight years, and nobody has even made an effort, at least not a serious effort. And there’s a firm commitment that he’s not going to use a litmus test. And with the 50/50 split I think that’s an enforceable commitment both as to the president-elect and as to Senator Ashcroft if he is in fact confirmed.”

(Senator Specter was in witty form in these Ashcroft hearings. Addressing one testifier against Ashcroft he benignly remarked, “Ms. Michelman, you’re a pragmatist. I know that because I see you working out in the gymn with some regularity.”)

All the old Democratic warhorses rallied round to do some dutiful barking at Ashcroft. But to watch Ted Kennnedy or Joe Biden do their numbers was like hearing one of those car alarms that go off at 3 am. They make a lot of noise, but no one pays the slightest attention and in the end they stop, having achieved no greater purpose than the advertisement that at least in some notional, symbolic sense they are on guard.

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Y’all Don’t Come Back Now

Off he rushed to the airport and thence to Chappaqua, but if ever there was a man who left a sour taste in the mouth by the manner of his parting it was surely Bill Clinton. From time to time, against my better judgement I’ve thought kindly of the man, and time after time he’s brusquely brought me to earth with some bleak reminder of his rottenness.

Try Colombia. Less than 48 hours before Clinton quit the White House with a legal deal covering his own ass , his administration announced that it would employ a highly questionable legal interpretation of “Plan Colombia”–the $1.3 Billion in aid going mostly to the Colombian military. The interpretation allowed the Administration to dodge entirely any certification or waiver of human rights conditions attached to the aid, thus circumventing the whole certification process in providing money to the Colombian government.

Now, these human rights certifications were the object of fierce lobbying by human rights groups last year. After the certification was added, proponents of the Plan tried to undermine human rights stipulations by adding the “waiver” option to the aid. You can argue that the experience of similar lobbying in the 1980s over aid to Central America swhould have instructed the groups in the folly of expecting any administration to honor such commitments, but this doesn’t diminish the squalor and cynicism of that the Clinton team did in its dying hours.

Last August, Clinton waived four of the five human rights criteria laid out by Congress to release the first chunk of S781.5 million. A certification or waiver was also required for the second installment of 56.4 million dollars. In mid-January wo Democratic Senators, Paul Wellstone and Tom Harkin, called on Clinton as late as last week to reject a waiver for the second slice because the Colombian government had “failed to make significiant progress” on human rights.

But Boucher said the Clinton administration had decided that because the second slice of aid was not included in “regular funds” but rather in an emergency spending bill the certification and waiver process did not apply.

So, with virtually no opportunity for the human rights community to respond, the Clinton Administration has effectively created a way to avoid the whole question of human rights in Colombia. As Jack Laun of the Colombia Support Network said bitterly, “This unilateral interpretation trivializes the role of Congress in allocating funds and undermines the work of countless human rights organizations that have testified time and again to the need to consider human rights abuses in Colombia.”

There’s bipartisanship for you, in the deeper sense. George Bush SR quit office in 1993, having signed Christmas pardons for Reagan-Bush era officials who’d broken the law by breaching congressional prohibition on aid to the Nicaraguan contras. Here we have Clinton and Albright doing a last-minute end run around a modest congressional road-block against sending US dollars destined in considerable part to Colombia’s para-military death squads.

And then there were those final pardons, also those final non-pardons. The man who campaigned in New Hampshire in 1992 by running home to Arkansas to preside over the state killing of the mostly brain-dead Rickey Ray Rector left office as the man who pardoned that Navajo scoundrel Peter MacDonald, while leaving Leonard Peltier to rot. Many a bit player in the Whitewater and Espy scandals got Bill’s manumission from the slammer or a felony record, but Clinton didn’t forget a bigger fish, in the form of the seriously sinister Marc Rich, a billionaire commodities trader was convicted in the early 1980s on 51 counts of conspiracy, tax evasion, racketeering, fraud charges involving the purchase of discounted oil from Iran during the hostage crisis and breaking US sanctions against South Africa. Rich fled to Switzerland before he came to trial and Switzerland refused to extradite him.

In mid-January Al Gore went to New York to attend a Democratic fund-raiser organized by Denise Rich, just divorced from the fugitive. Among those gawping on 63rd street at the limousines and cops lined up for the convenience of the Democratic grandees was the political columnist Richard Reeves, who later described the scene: “What’s up?” “Vice President Gore,” said a cop. “Yeah,” came from a voice in the crowd. “He saw a $ 10 bill blowing down the street.” He may have done that, but both he and his boss knew well that across the last six years Ms Rich has given just under $250,000 to the Democratic National Committee. The pardon of Rich came in due course, Bill’s final reminder to us on the topic of campaign finance reform, whose muted expression in the form of the McCain-Feingold bill is being fiercely opposed by our new president.

Transition? What transition?

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The Inaugural’s Hidden Laureate

Unless you count Ricky Martin as a metric presence, there was no poet laureate to give metric dignity to Bush’s inaugural ceremonies, no successor to Clinton’s laureate, Maya Angelou, or to Robert Frost, attended with such impolite impatience by Jack Kennedy back at Camelot’s dawn in 1961. But last Saturday there was the echo of a poet who began his life as a radical and who ended as Britain’s true blue laureate.

Bush’s well-written speech invoked “uncounted, unhonored acts of decency which give direction to our freedom”. In “Lines Composed A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”, his great poem written in 1797, William Wordsworth, still an supporter of the French revolution, wrote: “These beauteous forms, / through a long absence, have not been to me / as is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:/ but oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din / of towns and cities, I have owed to them, / in hours of weariness, sensations sweet, / felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;/ and passing even into my purer mind, / with tranquil restoration: feelings too / of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps, / as have no slight or trivial influence / on that best portion of a good man’s life, his little, nameless, unremembered acts / of kindness and of love.”

The new president no doubt has the same emotions about rural Texas though in the same poem Wordsworth insists that he’s “a worshipper of nature” which makes him an odd choice as the laureate of the new age of Bush, since the latter’s Interior Secretary, Gail Norton, takes the view that nature’s “beauteous forms” look all the better if embellished by a fast food franchise, oil derrick or cyanide leach pit.

In Norton’s eyes and probably Bush’s too, Wordsworth’s view of the morally enhancing powers of nature would count as New Age paganism, in marked contrast to the proper role of Almighty God, frequently invoked by Bush in that same speech and culminating in that vulgar Reaganesque flourish about the angel and the whirlwind. CP

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net. Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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