WASHINGTON, D.C. - Sure, it's always a little weird around here, and slightly weirder when one party is taking power from another. Furthermore, in this age, which neglects history and glorifies hype, the wise citizen will beware the observer who, absent due deliberation, proclaims that this time things are really, really weird around here.

OK, deliberation has been due, history has been considered, prudence is being exercised, and you know what? This time, things are really, really weird around here.

Such was the conclusion of your humble agent, who spent the week before the week before the Inauguration wandering his old haunts in Your Nation's Capital and discussing matters of great and small moment with its regular inhabitants.

But weirdness has its uses. From the mire of absurd rhetoric, rampant obfuscation, blatant mendacity and total confusion, emerge some truths about the present, and indeed about the past.

Under the circumstances, weirdness is to be expected. The new Senate is the first ever to be split evenly between the parties. The majority in the new House is as close as any in memory, if not history. The new president is the first in 112 years who did not win the popular vote, arguably the first in 124 years who did not win at all, depending, to paraphrase the former president, on what the definition of "win" is.

And yet, some congressional Republicans talk as though their majorities were (Lyndon) Johnsonian. In a seven-page Dec. 27 letter to then President-elect George W. Bush, Rep. James Hansen of Utah, the new chairman of the House Resources Committee, vigorously urged reversing what he called "the Clinton administration's unreasoned and frequently absurd interpretation of law and congressional intent" about natural resources and public lands.

Environmentalists feigned horror at the prospects. Actually, they were delighted about the letter, privately noting that nothing on Hansen's wish list was new, and that his predecessor as chairman, Don Young of Alaska, had been unable to accomplish any of it despite a bigger majority.

In Your Face

Hansen appeared to be following the precept of Bush, who is trying to govern as though he'd won a landslide. That victory speech rhetoric about being the president of everyone seems limited to the rhetoric. The Bush administration's de facto opening motto? In Your Face.

Such strategy is not without political risk. Bush has decided to be a conservative president after an election in which a small majority of the voters opted for liberal candidates. Only a fool would claim there is a liberal majority in the country. Only a fool would deny that there is a non-conservative majority, especially regarding issues under the purview of the attorney general and the secretary of the Interior, two "In Your Face" cabinet choices.

Risk in politics invites counter-risk, which Bush's opponents immediately took. Among the weirdnesses was the sudden and unprecedented coalition between environmentalists and the civil rights establishment, with the NAACP joining the battle against Gale Norton's confirmation as Interior secretary and the Sierra Club coming out against former Sen. John Ashcroft's designation as attorney general.

The risk here is greater for the environmentalists. The wise political advocate will pause before standing at any podium with Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters of California. There is always the danger that she will allege without evidence that someone is a racist. In this case, the someone was Ashcroft.

But come to think of it, why else would a senator deliver a speech at Bob Jones University? Or get interviewed by Southern Partisan Magazine, which stops just short of yearning for a revival of slavery? Perhaps there is evidence, in other words, that Ashcroft is a naif, even a fool.

It was neither Ashcroft's racial views nor his possible ignorance that earned him the opposition of conservation groups. It was what Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope called his "open hostility to most environmental laws," raising the question of whether he would vigorously enforce them.

Here is one useful lesson from the weirdness. Pope understates the case; the attorney general has more power over environmental and land-use policy than is generally recognized. The Justice Department, for instance, could decline to resist "takings" lawsuits brought against the government. Or it could resist them incompetently because the career lawyers with pro-environmental views had been relegated to paper-shuffling jobs.

"States' rights" always a fraud

But it was Gale Norton's racial views - or at least her relevant historical interpretation - that inspired the NAACP to oppose her, after the Washington Post unearthed a 1996 speech in which she seemed to dismiss the horrors of slavery as "bad facts."

That might be unfair to Norton. What she said was that slavery constituted the kind of "bad facts that can undermine an otherwise powerful legal case. We certainly had bad facts in that case, where we were defending state sovereignty by defending slavery. But we lost too much. We lost the idea that the states were to stand against the federal government gaining too much power over our lives."

Forget for a moment just who was this "we" she mentioned. Forget, too, the incomprehensibility of her statement, and consider only its usefulness. Norton has clearly, if unintentionally, illustrated the historical truth that "states' rights" has always been a fraud, a philosophical fig leaf designed to obscure reprehensible policy.

Yes, the Constitution puts some limits on federal power. But "states' rights" has not been asserted in the abstract. It has served causes - first slavery, then segregation, always spoliation. We owe Norton some thanks for reminding us.

And we owe her, Ashcroft, and of course Bush, credit for this bizarre circumstance: that in the first month of the year 2001, 138 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, almost 136 years after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox and 37 years after passage of the Civil Rights Act, senators, presidential appointees, and commentators were debating the virtues of the Confederate States of America and its peculiar institution.

Really, really weird.

 

Jon Margolis' forays into weirdest Washington, D.C., are broken up by retreats to the quiet homeplace in Barton, Vermont.