How did the Confederacy become the sleeper issue of 2001? In John Ashcroft's nomination for Attorney General and Gale Norton's for Interior Secretary, the Civil War has appeared like one of those weekend battle re-enactments with folks in period costume. Ashcroft is under fire for giving an interview to a pro-Confederate magazine, Southern Partisan, in which he praised icons like Jefferson Davis while lauding the publication for helping "set the record straight." Two columnists for the magazine are members of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a self-styled "white-rights" group based in St. Louis, Mo., which is part of the coalition supporting Ashcroft's nomination. For his part, Ashcroft has called the C.C.C.'s views "abhorrent"--but the association hasn't helped his troubled nomination.
Norton joined the Civil War in 1996, when she gave a speech to a conservative group saying "we lost too much" when the South was defeated. "We lost the idea that the states were to stand against the Federal Government gaining too much power over our lives," she added. Norton wasn't defending slavery; she referred to it as "bad facts" in the case for states' rights. Indeed, George W. Bush makes a good point when he says it's ridiculous to describe Norton as pro-slavery. But N.A.A.C.P. head Julian Bond also makes a good point when he labels her remarks "wanton insensitivity." Imagine if some politician who advocated building a German-style highway system said "we lost too much" when Hitler was defeated, and brushed off the Holocaust as merely "bad facts."
Why does a 19th century war cast a shadow on 21st century politics? It was no ordinary conflict. As the war that ripped the country in two and finally ended slavery, it has emotional resonance--for the sons and daughters of slaves, for whites ashamed of their ancestors' actions, for Southerners resentful of Northern hegemony, and for Americans who honor the valor and bravery of soldiers from the North and the South. But Republican politicians get into trouble when some pro-Confederate groups--who go beyond simply honoring the soldiers and seem to show sympathy for slavery--join today's political fray. One of John McCain's backers in last year's crucial South Carolina primary, for instance, was the editor of Southern Partisan. At the time, Bush and McCain were dodging the question of whether South Carolina should keep flying the Confederate battle flag over the state capitol, because they didn't want to alienate white Southern voters. The flag had flown there since 1962, a states'-rights rebuff to desegregation and a daily affront to blacks. In an attempt at conciliation, it was moved to another flagpole on the capitol grounds last July.
That symbol of the Old South is still causing trouble. Georgia and Mississippi face battles over their state flags, which incorporate elements of the Confederate flag. The flags may one day be redesigned, but the Civil War stays, because it was about the biggest questions we have: What is equality? Who should have power? What is America? We've never resolved those questions, which is why we remain on the battlefield.
--By Matthew Cooper, with Adam Zagorin/Washington