The Big Fold:

Yesterday, the Judiciary Committee voted 10 to eight to send John Ashcroft's nomination for attorney general to the Senate floor. The "aye" votes included every Republican on the committee and Democratic Senator Russell Feingold. Feingold told the committee that he voted for Ashcroft because it is customary to give the president his cabinet. As he righteously explained, "The Senate has nearly uniformly sought to avoid disapproving nominations because of their philosophy alone, and I believe that we should not begin to do so now."

Feingold warned that if Ashcroft didn't act as "the attorney general of all the people, regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, I will seek to be the first to call him on it and demand that he be held accountable."

Once Ashcroft is attorney general -- with Feingold's assistance -- it will be too late. He has already refused to be a leader for all the people, and Feingold declined to hold him accountable. John Ashcroft kept James Hormel from being ambassador to Luxembourg because Hormel is gay. Period. What word other than "bigotry" describes that action? And since when is supporting bigotry okay because it's custom? How can Feingold vote for a right-wing attorney general nominee with little allegiance to the Voting Rights Act, who fought integration, slandered an African-American judge for having a "criminal bent" of mind because he believed in a defendant's right to counsel, and squashed a presidential nomination to an ambassadorship on the grounds that the nominee promoted a "gay lifestyle" -- all because it is the custom to do so?

If one substitutes "black" or "Jew" or "woman" in the language Ashcroft used to describe why he scuttled James Hormel's nomination, is there any doubt that his own nomination would be history?

Certainly, Feingold won't be complaining in the coming days about the Bush Justice Department. It is custom in this country to execute murderers, so he won't gripe about the death penalty. What's more, it's customary to execute them frequently without giving them a decent lawyer, so he won't gripe about that. Actually, it's custom for the Justice Department to bring 80 percent of its federal death penalty cases against minorities, so that must be okay with him as well. (It is also custom for senators to trade favors for fat campaign contributions. So if Feingold's pet campaign finance reform bill doesn't pass, it's just custom.)

To be fair to Feingold, he's only one of many Democrats who, apparently, care more about adhering to the rules of the Rich White Senator Club (rules that Ashcroft himself set a precedent for abandoning on countless occasions) than about standing up for the base of their party. Let's be clear about this: Ashcroft was beatable. Senator Kennedy had, at one point, 30 votes to back him if he filibustered; another 11 and Ashcroft could get back to fighting integration in Missouri. What came between Kennedy and his 41 votes? Feingold and the Custom Crew.

Senator Leahy, for example, announced that he'd vote against Ashcroft but wouldn't support a filibuster -- which meant, essentially, that he would permit Ashcroft to become attorney general but he wanted to keep open his option to make a long, indignant speech. (This is a page out of the Bush playbook: Just keep saying how much you care about something -- in Bush's case, unifying the country -- while you proceed apace to undermine the very same thing.)

These senators tacitly or explicitly approved Ashcroft's nomination so as not to suffer the discomfort that comes with violating the rules of their privileged club. The senators explain away Ashcroft's blatantly misleading statements to the Senate Judiciary Committee (that would have been worth at least three full committee investigations and a Judicial Watch lawsuit during the Republican Revolution) because they know him.

The sad reality is, if there were one openly gay senator, or one African-American senator, the Customarians would have had to look one of their own in the eye and say that Ashcroft's record on civil rights didn't matter, and his bigotry against gay Americans didn't matter -- and if they had had to do that, this vote might very easily have been different. But as it stands, there are no African Americans and no gay or lesbian senators to disrupt a pleasant lunch in the Senate Dining Room tomorrow. Only courteous clubmembers. And if Attorney General Ashcroft has his way, the lunchrooms of power will stay that way for a good long time.