BROOKE GLADSTONE: For three days the new president's nominee for attorney general, John Ashcroft, sat face to sober face with the senate judiciary committee. Part of his grilling involved a single interview he gave to a single magazine. Bob wondered how the once low profile Southern Partisan magazine could have become the latest political litmus test.
JOHN ASHCROFT: ...racist views.
SENATOR: Is the Southern Partisan magazine racist in your opinion?
JOHN ASHCROFT: I probably should do more due diligence on it. I know they've been accused of being racist. May I-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
SENATOR: I got that John, but all those folks behind your experts, they knew this was coming up! Didn't they tell you what that magazine is? The guy sitting back to your left -- he's done ten of these! He's forgotten more -- he's read every one of those issues!
BOB GARFIELD:How does it come to pass that an obscure quarterly journal devoted ostensibly to the preservation of antebellum heritage becomes a focal point in a tense confirmation struggle? The answer is complicated, but it begins with Ashcroft himself.
A conservative ideologue who has declared his fealty to a Christian political agenda, he himself was destined to be our lightening rod for liberal ire. Leftist interest groups, skeptical that Ashcroft can put aside his personal beliefs to enforce the law of the land have made him for the moment public enemy number one. Their skeleton hunt began at the moment of his nomination, and they quickly unearthed a good one -- an interview Ashcroft gave in 1998 to Southern Partisan!
The content itself was not especially controversial. He praised the idealism of Confederate leaders, but what about the venue itself? Just what is Southern Partisan?
CHRIS SULLIVAN: Southern Partisan is a quarterly journal of opinion that looks at history and current events from a Southern perspective.
BOB GARFIELD: Chris Sullivan is editor of Southern Partisan.
CHRIS SULLIVAN: We have book reviews. We do articles about religion and music and, and we have a cooking column.
BOB GARFIELD: The description is accurate. Most of the content of Southern Partisan, sympathetic as it may be to a culture built on the back of slavery, is quite innocuous, especially during Sullivan's four year tenure.
But there is also the other stuff -- the frightening stuff accumulated over two decades. Here a nostalgic memoir by fictional ex-slaves on the "peace and security of plantation life." Here a column from an outside contributor dismissing the ability of Blacks, Latinos, Eastern Europeans and Asians to embrace democracy. Here an article titled Why I Will Not Denounce Southern Racism or American Imperialism.
In my own conversation with Sullivan I asked him if he supported segregation.
CHRIS SULLIVAN:Well, I'm, I'm agin it-- against it - it's a bad idea! Listen -- Southern Partisan's political perspective and mine personally is essentially Libertarian.
BOB GARFIELD:But just out of curiosity, if you own a movie theater and you want to have a black water fountain and a white water fountain within your own premises and you're the owner, what about the government's ability to force you to allow your patrons to drink from whatever water fountain they choose?
CHRIS SULLIVAN: Yeah, well I mean that's a little tougher question from a Libertarian perspective. It's, it's like smoking laws, you know? I don't want the government saying that a restauranteur can't allow smoking. You know what I'm saying? On the other hand you--
BOB GARFIELD:Well, no, I don't know what you're saying because I don't think it is like smoking laws at all; it's something very different. I mean it's about basic human rights, isn't it? [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
CHRIS SULLIVAN: Well-- Well I, I, I agree. I say -- what I'm saying is, is despite my Libertarian leanings, I think it is an appropriate use of, of government power.
BOB GARFIELD:A ringing endorsement of the Civil Rights Act this was not. But for two decades such incendiary missiles have scudded along beneath the public's radar. Then in last year's Republican primaries Southern Partisan's suspicious tendencies were put into play. The New Republican magazine ran a twelve hundred word piece documenting the long time connection of McCain's chief South Carolina strategist to Southern Partisan! The story, by Benjamin Soskis, then a twenty three year old fact checker doing only his second article, described the quarterly's odd eclectism including its quote "gumbo of racist apologias."
BENJAMIN SOSKIS: The term "racist" has been kind of bandied about too much. I now regret using it in my piece. Is it racism? Probably n-- that's, that's a strong word. I don't, I don't know if that's the right word. Is it a type of racial insensitivity that's really problematic? I think that's what it is.
BOB GARFIELD:Soskis a year later says he finds it eerie to see his characterizations reverberate in the judiciary committee, and he concedes that among the smoking guns he displayed for the jury of New Republic readers was a quotation taken out of context to seem nakedly racist when in fact the actual text got to a more or less opposite point. He nonetheless defends his general conclusions about Southern Partisan.
BENJAMIN SOSKIS: Unfortunately perhaps because of the time conditions a few of the quotes weren't as fair, but-- I stand by [LAUGHS] the characterization of the magazine as, as grossly racially insensitive.
PETER APPLEBOME: Many people would read it and find it amazingly insensitive, and some people would find it racist, but it's not racism of the easy to categorize black-hating Klan variety.
BOB GARFIELD:Peter Applebome, a New York Times editor, is author of Dixie Rising: How the South is Shaping American Values, Politics and Culture.
PETER APPLEBOME: For a lot of people, what little they know about Southern Partisan evokes immediately the savage South, but there is a signal that's being sent out here. It's not the kind of thing that should disqualify him, but it's information that's not without import.
BOB GARFIELD:But a piece of information is one thing. A litmus test for racism is another. And that's what Southern Partisan has become. And John Ashcroft is now defending far more than religious conservatism. But should his tenuous connection to the magazine be so damning? Many Republican politicians have been interviewed by Southern Partisan, and so have such notably non-race-baiting lunatics as civil rights activist James Meredith and TV weatherman Willard Scott. Isn't there a disturbing guilt-by-association vibe to all of this, and are-you-now-or-have-you-ever-been McCarthyistic terrorism of the single lurid detail? The New York Times' Peter Applebome.
PETER APPLEBOME: There is this guilt by association that's not fair, and we could do an awf-- a better job when we use -- make reference to a publication like Southern Partisan to give a better idea of what's in it. I think you do your best in your eight or ten words to give a little more of an explanation of what the magazine is.
BOB GARFIELD: Eight or ten words. Isn't that kind of dangerous?
PETER APPLEBOME: It's kind of tough, but that's journalism!
BOB GARFIELD:Oh, it's journalism all right! But when journalism meets politics meets shorthand, the greater truth that seems so tantalizingly close can be the very thing that's left behind.