Backward thinking

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At last we are upon Bill Clinton's famous bridge to the 21st century, gazing into the unknown vistas of the new millennium. It's exciting to contemplate the challenges. The problems we face as a nation -- indeed, as a planet -- of interconnected societies, economies and ecosystems are enormously complex. They require a new and forward-looking vision of our place in the cosmos, as well as a thorough questioning of the assumptions and prescriptions that previously sufficed.

It is deeply distressing, therefore, that the dominant image on our national screen is that of our court-appointed "leader," George W. Bush, awkwardly lurching into the past. For when it comes to the creation of his cabinet -- those who would surround and advise the president-select -- he has chosen to gaze backwards in forming policies to guide us into the times ahead. In other words: this IS your father's Oldsmobile!

Consider, for example, Bush's selection of Donald Rumsfeld as his secretary of defense. Rumsfeld, 68, is a veteran of four Republican administrations, dating back to Richard Nixon. He already served as secretary of defense under Gerald Ford a quarter century ago and was Dick Cheney's superior -- as Ford's chief of staff -- before he moved to direct the Pentagon. In going with Rumsfeld (a strong believer in the discredited "Star Wars" missile-defense policy created in the Reagan administration) after a 25-year layoff, Bush is ignoring the profound geopolitical and military changes that have since taken place around the globe.

Oh yes, Bush made some politically savvy appointments wrapped in a patina of progressivism, like Christie Whitman (a pro-choice woman) to head the Environmental Protection Agency, and our own Mel Martinez (the first Cuban-American cabinet secretary) to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But these departments and their agendas are not high on Dubya's list. Watch for the Republican Congress to slash their budgets over the next few years, while Bush looks the other way.

And nowhere has Bush gone so doggedly into reverse mode than with his nomination of John Ashcroft as attorney general. The only American to have ever lost a U.S. Senate race to a dead man (specifically to Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, whose widow, Jean, will take his seat in the Senate), Ashcroft himself was resurrected by Bush as his gift to the Republican Party's far-right wing, and its insistence upon overturning the Clin-ton/Reno priorities at the Department of Justice.

The son of a Pentecostal minister -- he eschews smoking, drinking and (gasp!) dancing -- Ashcroft is a longtime hero to the Christian Coalition for his hard-line antiabortion views. Of the 43 Senate votes he cast on reproductive-rights issues, 42 were aimed at overturning Roe vs. Wade, America's firmest protection of a woman's right to choose. He has admitted that outlawing abortion was a higher priority for him than cutting taxes.

A darling of the reactionary National Rifle Association, Ashcroft has consistently opposed federal gun-control legislation. He has shown little interest in aggressive enforcement of civil-rights laws, environmental protections and antitrust regulations -- key responsibilities of the attorney general's office. And even while many conservatives are beginning to question the fairness and efficacy of the death penalty, Ashcroft is a strong supporter of capital punishment, siding with Bush in opposing a moratorium on executions due to concerns over the racial composition of state and federal death rows.

In addition, Ashcroft is one of the most ideologically extreme drug warriors, and his appointment will doubtless spell trouble for sentencing/prison policies (he has consistently opposed mandatory sentencing reforms), medical-marijuana initiatives, needle-exchange programs and an end to racial profiling. All in all, Ashcroft can be counted upon to stop or turn back the clock in America's nascent foray into compassionate and reasonable drug-policy reform.

Bill Clinton wanted to bridge the millennia. George W. Bush is intent on slowing the traffic -- even halting all construction -- to keep us moored in a safe, albeit stagnant, cove where he, his father, and his father's friends feel comfortable.

For the time being, then, the future will have to proceed without us; America's historic forward-looking momentum will be stalled in neutral. We're just too afraid to travel into the unknown, and too lacking in vision to see the guideposts in the dark mists before us.

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