Inveterate Confederates

Trent Lott's sudden ousting as Senate majority leader seems part of a calculated effort by Republicans, led by the White House, to kill the controversy over the party's alliance with neo-Confederate forces as quickly as possible. But like some sort of shameful partisan ghost, the spirit of that alliance still haunts the Republicans, and will continue to for a long time to come. The careful maneuvering by Karl Rove and the White House political team, in their efforts to disavow Lott without angering the party's neo-Confederate constituency, shows that the party's basic character has not changed. The Republicans' coded appeals to "states' rights" may grow a little muted for a time, but the GOP will remain the party of the neo-Confederates. And that connection will remain unchallenged until and unless the media, prodded by the Democrats, insist on looking into a great deal more recent and not-so-recent history, including how George W. Bush gained the Republican nomination in 2000, the neo-Confederate background of Attorney General John Ashcroft and the dark past of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, whose vote on the Supreme Court installed Bush as president.

Richard Hines' name is unfamiliar to most Americans. But Hines played an important role in helping elect Bush in 2000. Without Hines' timely aid during the 2000 South Carolina Republican primary, Bush might not even have won his party's presidential nomination. Hines is also one of the most outspoken and influential neo-Confederates in the country. In Bush, he thought he'd found a comrade-in-arms. Until now, apparently, the Bush political operation has thought the same of him.

Hines is, in many ways, a paragon of the white Republican New South. A history graduate of the University of South Carolina, he has had a long career in Republican politics, both as an elected member of the South Carolina House of Representatives and as an appointee to various executive agencies, including the General Services Administration, under President Ronald Reagan. (His wife served as the Army's deputy assistant secretary for manpower and reserve affairs during the George Bush Senior administration.) After leaving the government, Hines walked through the revolving door between the private and public sectors -- and into Electronic Data Systems, Ross Perot's firm, as vice president in charge of U.S. government sales. In 1997, he started his own company, RTH Consulting, which has advised and represented such unsavory clients as the governments of Saudi Arabia and Cambodia. His partners include Carter Wrenn, a key member of Sen. Jesse Helms' (R-N.C.) ultraconservative inner circle and director of numerous Republican campaigns in North Carolina, beginning with Reagan's unsuccessful presidential bid in 1976.

While he made his fortune, Hines retained a keen interest in history and politics -- above all in the neo-Confederate movement that has now helped land Lott in so much trouble. Hines first gained national media attention in 1996 when, in a public protest over the unveiling of a monument to the black tennis great Arthur Ashe in Richmond, Va., he unfurled the battle flag of his great-grandfather's regiment and denounced the statue as "a sharp stick in the eye of those who honor the Confederate heritage."

By the time of the Ashe incident, Hines had been involved in neo-Confederate activities for well over a decade, as an activist in the Sons of Confederate Veterans and, even more flamboyantly, as managing editor of and contributor to the notorious pro-slavery magazine Southern Partisan. (Among his essays for the magazine was an effusive 1984 eulogy to Preston Brooks, the secessionist South Carolina representative best-known for his almost lethal caning of anti-slavery Sen. Charles Sumner on the Senate floor in 1856.) In 1999, Hines arranged for Southern Partisan to interview then-presidential hopeful John Ashcroft -- resulting in a Confederate apologia that later nearly cost Ashcroft confirmation as attorney general. Although Hines apparently no longer has any formal connection to Southern Partisan, he is still a featured speaker at neo-Confederate meetings, where he is touted as "a former South Carolina state legislator and everyday Confederate."

When he isn't defending the virtues of the slave South, Hines also remains active in the Republican Party, with particularly close ties to the South Carolina GOP political operative Warren Tompkins, a former protégé of the late Lee Atwater. In 2000, Tompkins, serving as the Bush campaign's Southeast regional chairman, helped pull out all the stops in the stunning negative assault on Bush's opponent, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during the crucial South Carolina primary. And though Tompkins later denied any direct link, his friend Hines helped the Bush campaign deliver its knockout low blow.

As the chief financial backer of a then-unregistered political action committee (PAC) called Keep It Flying, Hines was leading what would ultimately prove an unsuccessful fight to prevent the lowering of the Confederate flag from the dome of the state house in Columbia. The issue turned red hot during the 2000 Republican primary. Candidate Bush effectively sided with the neo-Confederate forces by refusing to condemn the flag; McCain, though more equivocal, did the same. But in the waning days of the campaign, according to a later report in The Wall Street Journal, Hines' PAC arranged and paid for a mass mailing of more than 250,000 letters, signed by Hines, lambasting McCain and praising Bush as the only major candidate who had not described the Confederate flag as a symbol of racism and slavery. What had looked like a close race turned, at the last minute, into a major Bush victory, clearing the way for his nomination. Richard Hines, the neo-Confederate, had helped turn the tide.

Hines' contribution has not been forgotten inside the White House -- at least according to Hines, who boasts on his company's Web site that he "has an active voice in the current Bush administration." Perhaps he is exaggerating. Regardless, the current White House has done nothing to disabuse him, or the country, of his conceit, even when presented with ample opportunities to do so. Nor have Bush and his political advisers been held accountable for Hines' contributions, and those of the neo-Confederate movement, to their rise to power in 2000.

Neo-Confederate influence in the Bush White House is not, meanwhile, confined to Hines. Bush's first act as president was to nominate Ashcroft as attorney general. Ashcroft had just lost a Senate race in Missouri after deciding not to run against Bush in the 2000 Republican presidential primaries. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has observed, Ashcroft -- as attorney general, governor of Missouri and a U.S. Senator -- "built a career out of opposing school desegregation in St. Louis and opposing African-Americans for public office." During the St. Louis integration crisis and after, Ashcroft maintained intimate links to the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC), the successor organization to the segregationist White Citizens Councils, which has its headquarters in St. Louis. Ashcroft even intervened at the behest of CCC leader Gordon Baum in a strange case involving a prominent CCC member accused of plotting the murder of an FBI agent. In his Southern Partisan interview, arranged by Hines, Ashcroft commended the magazine for helping to "set the record straight" and for "defending Southern patriots like [Robert E.] Lee, [Thomas "Stonewall"] Jackson, and [Jefferson] Davis." As George W. Bush's attorney general, Ashcroft has used the Department of Justice to support Republican efforts at voter suppression, many of them aimed at black voters.

George W. Bush owes his presidency, of course, to the Supreme Court's 5-to-4 vote in Bush v. Gore. Perversely, the Court, in making that decision, cited the equal-protection clause of the Constitution. That argument was particularly ironic in light of Rehnquist's record on race -- something else the White House hopes will not be examined in the wake of the Lott affair.

Early in his career, as clerk to Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, Rehnquist strongly endorsed upholding the Court's keystone pro-segregation decision of 1896 in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, and favored a Texas law permitting white-only primary elections. "It is about time the Court faced the fact that the white people of the south don't like the colored people," Rehnquist wrote. In 1964, according to sworn testimony, Rehnquist led efforts to harass minority voters in Arizona on behalf of the Barry Goldwater campaign. That same year, he publicly opposed the adoption of an anti-discrimination ordinance covering public accommodations in Phoenix. In 1970, as Richard Nixon's assistant attorney general, Rehnquist proposed a constitutional amendment designed to limit and disrupt implementation of the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision of 1954. Since being named to the Supreme Court, Rehnquist has consistently advanced his regressive views on race, as in his lonely dissent favoring the granting of federal tax-exempt status to Bob Jones University.

Lott's tribute to Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), while revealing too much of Lott's genuine long-held sentiments, was correct in his assessment about the historical significance of the founding father of the modern Republican Party. In 1968, Richard Nixon won the Republican nomination at the convention in Miami by cutting a deal with Thurmond, forging Nixon's infamous southern strategy. This enabled Nixon to build upon Goldwater's campaign, which had been supported by Thurmond, Lott and Bush Senior. It also enabled Nixon to fend off George Wallace's candidacy and to assimilate Wallace's Dixiecrat following into the Republican Party. In 1980, Reagan launched his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, site of the gruesome murders of three civil-rights workers in 1964, with a speech endorsing states' rights. Reagan was later touted by a young congressman named Trent Lott, who told the crowd that he wished Thurmond had won in 1948.

Bush Senior made his peace with the segregationist forces in Texas by opposing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. His son, building on that legacy, survived politically to win the Republican nomination via his reliance on neo-Confederate forces in the South Carolina primary. In ending its predicament over whether Lott should remain as Senate majority leader, the Republican Party is just beginning to face what it has become.

Sean Wilentz is the Dayton-Stockton Professor of History and director of the Program in American Studies at Princeton University.