As he finally faces the Senate Judiciary Committee today, Attorney General-designate John Ashcroft needs every break he can get. Inexplicably, Team Bush squandered a perfect opportunity for Ashcroft to defend himself before a friendly black audience on the eve of his Capitol Hill grilling.
The setting was perfect. Some 1,750 guests — about 75 percent of them black — gathered at the Sheraton New York for the Congress of Racial Equality’s 17th annual dinner honoring the birthday and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. CORE, a civil-rights group founded in 1942, is moderate to conservative. Its members and activists last night applauded Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani for unveiling a proclamation declaring this “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Week” in New York City. CORE lifetime-achievement-award recipients B. B. King and actor/National Rifle Association president Charlton Heston were greeted with cheers and standing ovations.
What better venue for Ashcroft to offer his side of a controversy that has seen him caricatured as a vicious racist intent on relegating women to their kitchens, barefoot and irreversibly pregnant? With virtually every news outlet within a 20-minute subway ride of the Sheraton’s mid-town Manhattan location, what better way for Ashcroft to define himself to the world before facing his Senate critics and hostile protesters elsewhere on Capitol Hill?
CORE staffers worked through a high official at the Republican National Committee to whom they e-mailed their invitation to Ashcroft early this month. The RNC operative met with Ashcroft himself on this matter, among others, then called CORE the same day to express interest. The only initial concern was the timing, just before today’s confirmation session.
CORE soon heard a counter-offer via the RNC: The Bush transition team suggested having Ashcroft’s wife Janet — a visiting assistant professor at historically black Howard University — speak as the former Missouri senator listened to her remarks from a seat on the dais. Team Bush then backed out entirely last Thursday, saying they wanted Ashcroft to make no public appearances before his Senate hearings.
Short of receiving the endorsement of Coretta Scott King in Atlanta, Ashcroft had no better place to be the evening before his hearings. His mere presence at the CORE banquet would have been an act of outreach and conciliation, even before he opened his mouth. By explaining his respect for King, whose birthday he made a holiday in Missouri, Ashcroft could have done plenty to dispel the venomous accusations that he is steeped in ethnic bias. By discussing his real record — as governor, he appointed three blacks to his Cabinet, eight to the Missouri bench (Democrats among them) and, as senator, supported 26 of President Clinton’s 28 black judicial appointees — the CORE audience and TV viewers would have heard Ashcroft refute the Left’s lies in his own words. Ashcroft’s participation would buoy nervous conservatives and embolden Ashcroft’s and Bush’s supporters on the black Right. In short, an out-of-the-park grand slam.
“It would have been an unbelievable coup for this man to have been here to honor Dr. King and to share some harmony with black folks and white folks,” CORE Chairman Roy Innis told me.
Innis does not hold Bush’s nominee responsible for this missed opportunity.” I don’t think it was Ashcroft. This man needs help, and I think he knows that,” Innis said. He pins the blame on Bush’s political strategists who he considers cautious to a fault. “If they keep this up, they’re going to lose the House in 2002 and the Senate will be gone. If that happens, G. W. will be a cripple in the presidency, and they will lose the presidency in 2004.”
Innis has high expectations for the incoming president. He recommends that Bush “accept my challenge to be the new Abe Lincoln and help to emancipate black folks from the political monolith of slavery that we’re in.”
So far, Team Bush’s handling of the Ashcroft nomination does not bode well for the tough, engaged approach that Innis and other conservative advocates expect. Several free-market activists recently have expressed to me their frustration in receiving neither information nor guidance from Bush Central.
In preparation for an earlier column and subsequent radio interviews on Ashcroft, I called the transition press office and left no fewer than five messages seeking a fact sheet on Ashcroft’s record on black political appointments. Nothing was faxed to me over a ten-day period. My sixth call was the first to be returned, a week and a half after my first query. Though a senior press aide yesterday promised me an Ashcroft fact sheet and background on Bush’s education priorities, nothing has arrived so far.
The transition press office did not return two calls I placed today seeking comment for this article.
By contrast, it took Nancy Coleman-media-relations director at People for the American Way — just one hour and 12 minutes after my sole phone call to compile and send me a five-page fax outlining the liberal group’s objections to John Ashcroft’s nomination.
Team Bush may be the last to realize this, but the Left has declared war on them. The Bushies need every friend they can get. They cannot afford to ignore sympathetic, information-hungry columnists or overlook 1,750 mainly black moderates and conservatives eager to give an embattled Cabinet appointee a hearing.