JOHN SOLOMON, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - Sen. John Ashcroft, President-elect Bush's choice to be America's top law enforcement officer, once hailed Confederate war heroes as "patriots" and suggested they shouldn't be portrayed as having died for "some perverted agenda."
The Missouri Republican tapped to be the next attorney general also has advocated an increased role for charities while opposing federal money for drug treatment, saying government assistance shouldn't further the "lowest and least" conduct.
And a decade ago he refused to sign a presidential panel's report that concluded America was falling behind in efforts to bring equality to minorities, calling it too negative.
As his soon-to-be former colleagues in the Senate prepare for Ashcroft's confirmation hearings, the GOP senator's conservative speeches, writings and interviews are being scrutinized for what they may foreshadow of his views as attorney general. Democrats and critics have made clear they intend to make Ashcroft's civil rights record an issue.
His record shows he vigorously sought to end abortions, advocated a larger role for charities, pushed amendments that would permanently alter the Constitution for various conservative causes and sent what critics say is a mixed message on race and poverty issues.
In a 1998 interview, Ashcroft criticized efforts by some historians to portray early Americans, like slave-owning George Washington, as racist, calling them "malicious attacks" and "revisionist nonsense."
"Your magazine also helps set the record straight," Ashcroft told the Southern Partisan, a two-decade-old periodical that has published articles defending Confederate soldiers and political figures and once sold a T-shirt commemorating Abraham Lincoln with the phrase his assassin uttered, "Thus always to tyrants."
"You've got a heritage of ... defending Southern patriots like (Gen. Robert E.) Lee, (Gen. Stonewall) Jackson and (Confederate President Jefferson) Davis," Ashcroft said in an interview. At the time, he was courting conservatives for a possible presidential candidacy.
"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," he added.
Juleanna Glover Weiss, a spokeswoman for Bush's transition, said Ashcroft's comments reflected that he "believes in an exact reading on history."
"He holds sacred the legacies of Jefferson, Washington and Martin Luther King," she said. "Senator Ashcroft's favorite historical figure is Abraham Lincoln. He has been an avid student of history."
She added, "he will be an exceptionally strong enforcer of the civil rights laws as he has been a proponent in Missouri and throughout his career."
As Missouri governor from 1985 to 1993, Ashcroft signed into law a state holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., the slain civil rights leader; established musician Scott Joplin's house as Missouri's only historic site honoring a black person; created an award honoring black educator George Washington Carver; named a black woman to a state judgeship; and led a fight to save Lincoln University, which was founded by black soldiers.
And when he considered becoming Republican Party chairman in 1993, he urged Republicans to be "tolerant" and to avoid being "mistakenly portrayed as petty, divisive and mean-spirited."
But in 1989, when former President George Bush appointed Ashcroft to a federal commission to study the plight of minorities in America, he refused to sign the panel's final report.
That report concluded that the nation was slipping in its efforts to achieve equality for blacks, Hispanics and Indians and that many minorities were "afflicted by the ills of poverty and deprivation."
Ashcroft was one of only two people on the 40-member panel, which included former presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter and King's widow, Coretta, to refuse to endorse the findings.
Ashcroft's office said at the time that he believed the report's portrayal of minorities was too negative and that its "generalizations about setbacks in progress are overly broad and counterproductive."
Weiss said Ashcroft was instrumental in getting the panel created by the president, but when the report was written, he was acutely disappointed and believed it had missed some opportunities.
"He believed that it addressed the plight of some minorities, but it didn't address all minorities," she said.
A decade later, Ashcroft found himself under attack from black leaders after he helped scuttle a federal judgeship for Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White, the first black on the state's high court.
Ashcroft said he considered White to be soft on criminals, and noted he had supported 23 of the 26 nominations of black judges during his Senate tenure. But black leaders pledged to work against Ashcroft's re-election.
Ashcroft came under fire for accepting an honorary degree and giving the commencement speech at Bob Jones University, which once opposed interracial marriages and dating.
Ashcroft said he was unaware of the university's views when he gave the speech but declined to return the degree.
And though they didn't garner national attention, Ashcroft's comments in Southern Partisan drew sharp criticism from black leaders in his state.
In the magazine interview, Ashcroft was asked about his views on a girl who was sent home from school because she displayed a Confederate flag on her knapsack.
"The right of individuals to respect our history is a right that the politically correct crowd wants to eliminate, and this is just not acceptable," Ashcroft responded.
In the Senate, Ashcroft pushed "charitable choice" legislation that empowered charities and religious organizations to better assist the needy. He has spoken out, however, against using federal funds for drug treatment.
"A government which takes the resources that we would devote toward the interdiction of drugs and converts them to treatment resources ... and then assures citizens that if you're involved in drugs we'll be there to catch you with a treatment center and also implements a clean needle program is a government that accommodates us at our lowest and least instead of calls us to our highest and best," Ashcroft said in a speech.
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