The game of search and destroy

Posted: Jan 11, 2001 12:00 AM
With Labor Secretary-designate Linda Chavez outed as friend and unsung benefactor of struggling immigrants, one of them illegal, the question becomes: what now? One Bush cabinet-designee kaput, killed off by news stories: does that bode kinder, gentler times or rougher and tougher? Sometimes blood satiates the mob, sometimes it doesn't. Unsolicited advice for Team Bush: Concerning Washington's, political culture, always assume the worst, just as poor Linda Chavez ought to have done rather than brush aside the immigrant question as an irrelevance in the confirmation process. In other words, the Bush folk better be prepared to go the whole way with attorney-general-designate John Ashcroft. For a day or two, as Chavez's troubles multiplied, the Washington media partly forgot the enmity two-core democratic constituencies -- the NAACP and the feminist pro-choicers -- bear toward the conservative senator. Be assured, they won't forget. They'll come back swinging. When they do, Team Bush must recall the necessity of putting these folk soundly, if nonrancorously, in their place. It is no way to start a new administration -- losing two crucial appointees in consequence of petty, self-serving ideological attacks. Letting Ashcroft down at this point -- irrespective of his merits, which are considerable -- would amount to hanging a "kick me'' sign on the presidential derriere. Many would be eager to take him up on the offer. For Ashcroft supporters, reiterating famous instances of democratic virtue -- Whitewater, Filegate, Travelgate and so on -- won't help much. The senator's foes, if they can get away with it, mean to define him as a "narrow ideologue'' (Al Hunt in the Wall Street Journal) who is soft on racism, hostile to women's rights, and conceivably ready, psst, psst, to turn public school biology classes over to the creationists. Isn't he, after all, pro-life? Didn't he (along with 53 other Republicans) vote to defeat a black nominee to the federal bench? Isn't he a fervent fundamentalist? Guilty on all counts -- if you consider the guilt as attaching to wholly honorable courses of action. On the first count, what's wrong with supporting unborn life? That's "life.'' L-i-f-e. On the second count, the nominee in question -- Missouri Supreme Court Justice Ronnie White -- engineered his own defeat, as lone dissenter in the gruesome case of a white man who had murdered three law enforcement officers and the wife of one of them (at her Bible study, yet!). Permit me to interject here that the Democrats who voted 10 years ago against Clarence Thomas -- an indisputably black jurist -- continue to preen themselves on that act of witness. You can't have it both ways, guys: Either a vote against a black is inherently racist, or race isn't the determinative factor -- ever. I really do think the third count -- Ashcroft's evangelical Christianity -- is the one that genuinely galls his critics. You just can't trust sincere Christians with high office. It's that sense of connection they have with a power supposedly higher than any on Capitol Hill; their view that conversation with God -- i.e., prayer -- neither pollutes nor debases public discourse; their inability to regard Roe vs. Wade as over and done with. John Ashcroft's hitherto-unquestioned integrity as a public man should protect him against such specious, mean-spirited accusations. It hasn't -- and it really can't, in the Washington game that Linda Chavez accurately described as "the game of search and destroy,'' whose object is revenge, power, or both. There is this about power games, nonetheless: Winners aren't predetermined; unless, of course, one side lies down and quits. That's the side the Bush people must shun now with all the wit, all the resolution at their command.