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Rights and reason: Ham-fisted politics

Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III. With a name like that, the Southern gentleman senator from Alabama was bound to love a lost cause. American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians may not begrudge him that much. But must he always turn back the clock on their time?

But wait, there's an answer. The answer is no, not always. Last year, he summoned powerful feelings for the patriotism of American Indian code talkers, the World War II veterans whose Native language skills proved critical to the war effort. Sessions saw his way to lifting a hold on a Native languages preservation act, and as a result the bill became law.

Will pro-American sentiment win Sessions over this year, as the Indian Health Care Improvement Act reauthorization bill gathers steam again in Congress?

A Republican ally of Sessions in the Senate, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, provided a gleam of hope in that regard during a recent hearing of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. Coburn actually elevated federally funded Indian health care to the conditional if-then clause: ''If in fact we have an obligation, then we have an obligation to make sure they have the exact same level of care'' as anyone else.

Strange as it seems to be celebrating the conditional ''if'' when it comes to Indian health care, it represents an advance over last year's ''white paper'' extravaganza. It wasn't enough for the mysterious Department of Justice memo to question fine points of the reauthorization bill; it had to go for the jugular, attacking the very constitutionality of Indian health care. In an envenomed political environment, ''if in fact we have an obligation'' is progress.

Tribal leaders should capitalize on it by contributing their own opinions of the federal obligation for Indian health care to the public discourse, voicing their own accounts of what the delay in updating it has already cost their citizens. Perhaps their words will help to do for Sessions and company on health care what the code talkers did on Native languages. Until then, we can expect that Sessions and his cohorts in Congress will take their lost-cause mentality to the Senate floor, attacking the IHS as they attacked Native Hawaiians last year - as if they never really existed. Ever since Reagan, your really solid lost-causers always expect their most out-there positions to become mainstream any minute now.

While they're at it, tribal leaders may be the only ones capable of steering Sessions clear on the Cherokee. Twenty years after his lost-cause stand against black voting rights locked him out of the federal judiciary, we don't know if Sessions still keeps a Confederate flag in his closet or not. But we're pretty sure he's pleased the race card won't come up on Native issues, courtesy of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma - a great Indian nation, greatly abused and, like many of us, given to abusing themselves the minute things seem to be going right. Lately they've gotten themselves divided into factions, the Cherokee freedmen and the Nation members who voted the former black slaves right out of the tribe. They had the sovereign right to do so; and if you believe the Black Peril was about to overrun their voting booths, you can also believe they had reason to do so. But if the concepts of right and reason take you to a different place ... well, you're right: there's a reason they're being called ham-hands.

At any rate, Sessions and company are off the hook when it comes to race. Don't tell them it's immoral to exclude Native Hawaiians from history and Indians from federal health care, not with this ham-fisted example making international headlines. Actually, out of gratitude if nothing else, Sessions ought to keep a Cherokee princess in his closet, wrapped in that Confederate flag of his.

In closing, let's revisit that Justice Department white paper, the one J-Beau and company seized upon to cancel any chance of passing the Indian health care reauthorization in the last Congress. The transmission of the white paper from DOJ, where it was harmless, to the Republic Steering Committee, which took it ballistic, has been termed a ''self-serving'' act by Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., a savvy lawmaker if ever there was one. But still, as far we can determine, only one person on Capitol Hill knows the identity of that ''self-serving'' staffer at Justice, and that one person had this to say: ''I know where the bodies are buried, but I don't know their names.''

The betting in this corner is that the ''self'' was U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, ''serving'' one of the very few people who outrank him in the administration of President Bush. Gonzales will probably be gone soon, asked to resign over nothing to do with the white paper on Indian health care. All in all, a better deal than ''Scooter'' Libby got.