Politics & Policy

Ashcroft with Horns

This is dedicated to the one they hate.

After Sept. 11, everything changed, they say — and many things did. The dominant press took a new look at the administration. President Bush — formerly a clueless frat boy — was okay. Donald Rumsfeld — once a Ford-era caveman — was okay too. And Colin Powell, who’d never been not-okay, was even more okay than ever.

But John Ashcroft, the attorney general? Definitely not okay — in fact, something of a terror. Ashcroft bore the brunt of the liberals’ fury, or confusion. Even some of the liberals themselves will admit that 9/11 was a disorienting event for them. Everything had been upset. “National security” was no longer a Republican buzz phrase, meant to bloat the defense budget. “The American way of life” was no longer a piece of cheap oratory, fed to simpletons. And the notion of “good and evil” was suddenly plausible.

It could be that the Left needed something to hold on to: something familiar and comforting; something “9/10.” And that something was, to a degree, John Ashcroft as devil figure: Ashcroft as threat to the Constitution, as enemy of civil liberties, as representative of dark, religious impulses in the land — impulses liable to run wild under a genuine foreign attack. It was almost as if, after the planes got through destroying all those people, many said, “The terrorists must be stopped, I grant you. But John Ashcroft must be stopped too!” It would be Scoundrel Time all over again, this time led by a Christian conservative from Missouri.

Indeed, “McCarthy” and “Hoover” (as in J. Edgar) were heard frequently in reference to Ashcroft. The least that critics call him is “extremist.” It’s also widely alleged that Ashcroft is “scary” — “the scariest man in government,” wrote the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen. Al Hunt, in the Wall Street Journal, said, “Sept. 11 has enabled John Ashcroft to be John Ashcroft. That’s a scary spectacle.”

It was Anthony Lewis of the New York Times who best summed up the deepest liberal opinion about Ashcroft. The columnist was retiring after 50 years with the Times, and the paper did a farewell interview with him, at the end of last year. What had he learned? First, said Lewis, “certainty is the enemy of decency and humanity in people who are sure they are right, like Osama bin Laden and John Ashcroft.” It has come to that: There are circles in which easy comparisons can be made between bin Laden and Ashcroft, with no raised eyebrows.

John Ashcroft will never be a liberal darling, that’s for sure. He is liked — even loved — by his own, but he doesn’t go out of his way to make himself respectable to elite opinion. He has not “grown” in office — which is to say (sarcastically) that he hasn’t moderated his positions. As a conservative Christian, he is easy to mock as an anti-dancing Elmer Gantry. Liberals go after Ashcroft in the same way they went after Kenneth Starr. Back in Lewinsky times, James Carville sneered, “[Starr] goes down by the Potomac and listens to hymns, as the cleansing water of the Potomac goes by . . .” Ashcroft’s even worse: He sings hymns in public (about which, more later).

The attorney general has managed to enter the culture. Consider just a couple of offbeat items: The New York Times Magazine ran a spread on an eclectic gallery in L.A. It included a photo of an African coffin on which Ashcroft’s face has been painted. The gallery owner explained to me that Ashcroft was to be the death of affirmative action, Roe vs. Wade, and so on. Item No. 2? At a major Washington, D.C., synagogue, Ashcroft figured in a “Purim spiel”: He was equated with Haman, a figure of extreme danger — of mass murder — to Jews. Traditionally, Hitler, say, would be equated with Haman.

One veteran Washington reporter — not particularly partisan — shakes his head: “The depth of the hatred that certain liberals have for Ashcroft is hard to fathom. It doesn’t seem logical, even given all of Ashcroft’s conservative views. It’s like a prejudice, it’s visceral. There’s some Ashcroft mooma-jooma — some mo-jo, some karma, some vibe — that drives liberals nuts. It makes otherwise sane people say crazy things.”

It seems clear that Ashcroft serves, in part, as a proxy for Bush: that is, liberals and Democrats generally have had to lay off Bush, owing to his popularity and his standing as commander in chief. But they need someone on whom to vent their frustration: and that’s Ashcroft. He may not like it, but he does Bush the favor of being the administration’s lightning rod, its big fat target.


For someone who’s supposed to be scary and extreme, John Ashcroft has done awfully well with the public. In Missouri — one of America’s great swing states — he was elected attorney general twice, governor twice, and U.S. senator once. When he was state AG, he was chosen by his peers to be chairman of the National Association of Attorneys General. When he was governor, he was again chosen by his peers, to be chairman of the National Governors Association. As one Ashcroft-watcher maintains, “That’s a remarkable fact. These groups contain some of the most ambitious, most cut-throat people in the country. They’re pits of vipers. And for those people — both Republicans and Democrats — to settle on Ashcroft as their leader is extraordinary.”

In 2000, Ashcroft lost his Senate reelection campaign by a whisker — and in most unusual circumstances (a dead opponent; a looming widow; courtroom and polling-place shenanigans). George W. Bush, and others, were impressed by how graciously Ashcroft handled everything — and the president-elect tabbed him to be attorney general.

His confirmation hearings were a nasty affair, chaired by Sen. Patrick Leahy at his nastiest. Good ol’ John — whom all the senators had known and, from all outward appearances, liked — was suddenly a racist, a segregationist, and a menace. Even Ashcroft’s handlers (no babes in the wood) were shocked by the ferocity of the assault. Sen. Barbara Boxer said the Ashcroft nomination was “driving a stake into the heart of large numbers of Americans.” Ted Kennedy screamed that it was treason to suggest, as Ashcroft had, that the Bill of Rights was meant, in part, as a check against tyranny. Rep. Maxine Waters said: “I know a racist when I see one. Sen. Ashcroft acts like a racist, walks like a racist, talks like a racist.”

The left-leaning press was no better. The mildest thing they said was that Ashcroft was a bone to the far Right — and not just any bone, Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker would later write, but “the femur of a tyrannosaur” (get it?). An op-ed piece in USA Today — penned by the paper’s former Supreme Court reporter — openly asked, “Can a deeply religious person be attorney general?”

Ashcroft was eventually confirmed by his ex-colleagues, 58-42. Permanent Washington — society Washington — was not amused. One mark against Ashcroft, it seemed, was that he lacked charm — that he wasn’t at all right for cocktails. Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter has written that Ashcroft has “the charm of a walnut.” Al Hunt, speaking on television, said that Gov. Frank Keating — whom Bush had considered for AG — at least “would have brought charm.” It’s hard to argue with Alex S. Jones, a former New York Timesman, now at Harvard, who told the Buffalo News, “John Ashcroft will never be described as a sex toy.”

Once ensconced at the Justice Department, Ashcroft made few waves, except to continue his Senate practice of holding a prayer meeting (voluntary and ecumenical) every morning. This was made out to be both kooky and un-American.

But then came the awful day in September: and Ashcroft was left with an enormous responsibility, especially considering that federal law enforcement was judged to have fallen down badly on the job. His policies — or rather, the administration’s — quickly came under attack. Hundreds of foreigners who had violated U.S. law were detained, so that agencies could determine whether they had connections to terrorism. Of these detainees, Richard Cohen wrote, “They exist in an American gulag — a term I use with purposeful exaggeration.” (Yes, but tell it to a Russian, or a Chinese, or a Cuban.) Garry Trudeau used his Doonesbury to compare American policy to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The theme of an episode of The Practice, a show on ABC, was (as a character put it), “We’re back to interning people. Sticking them in prison because of where they were born.” The New York Times was moved to say — in an editorial titled “Disappearing in America” — “We trust the Bush administration is not seriously considering torture.”

These reactions were unhinged from reality.

Then there was “eavesdropping”: the government’s listening in on conversations between inmates and their attorneys. According to Justice, this has been done with 16 foreigners being held under “special administration measures” — that is, they’re suspected of conducting criminal activity from their jail cells. It’s not “eavesdropping” either, insists Justice, because both parties — inmates and attorneys — are told what is happening. Furthermore, any evidence gathered may not be shared with prosecutors, except by consent of a federal judge. Reasonable analysts, in possession of the facts, tend to find all of this reasonable. Yet a coalition led by the ACLU condemned “an unprecedented frontal assault on the attorney-client privilege and the right to counsel guaranteed by the Constitution.”

Then there were the military tribunals — an instrument of American wartime justice for many generations. President Bush, wanting to be more scrupulous than his predecessors, ordered the Defense Department to devise clear procedures for such tribunals: and Ashcroft got smacked for installing “kangaroo courts.”

There was also a furor concerning guns: Many liberals, both in Congress and in the press, charged that Ashcroft had prevented the FBI from searching a database of gun records. His tender concern for the Second Amendment, they said, trumped any proper concern for anti-terrorism or the well-being of the country. But this was nonsense: When the FBI moved to undertake such a search, FBI lawyers said: No — the law doesn’t permit it. Ashcroft concurred. Under fire in Congress, he said that he was simply enforcing the law; if legislators wanted to change their law (enacted in 1998), they were free to do so.

In early December, Ashcroft — fed up with false allegations, and evidently sick of being portrayed as Torquemada — came out blazing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. He called for “an honest, reasoned debate, and not fear-mongering,” and went on to say, “To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve.”

That did it: All hell — or much hell — broke loose. Lots of people cried “McCarthyism!” and worse, if there is worse. Ashcroft was talking about . . . well, brazen and groundless fear-mongering, as he said, not ordinary criticism or dissent; but his words were somewhat clumsy, and he left himself open to the Red-scare stuff. In an editorial, the Washington Post denounced “The Ashcroft Smear.” Bob Herbert in the New York Times wrote, “I experienced the disturbing sense of a 21st century official morphing alternately into J. Edgar Hoover and Joe McCarthy.” Hendrik Hertzberg, in that week’s New Yorker, had already called on Bush to fire Ashcroft. His name was muddier than ever.


The war aside, this AG has been swimming in bad raps. Maybe the baddest of them all has been Breastgate. Surely you are familiar with the statues that live in the Great Hall of the Justice Department: the Spirit of Justice (a lady) and the Majesty of Law (a gent). (Spirit has a nickname, by the way: Minnie Lou.) Because these statues are partially nude, they are noticed only during conservative Republican administrations. Minnie Lou and her one exposed breast became famous when photographers gleefully took their picture with Ed Meese, as he announced President Reagan’s report on pornography back in the mid 1980s. The presence of the Breast was thought to have “stepped on” the administration’s “message.” Washington liberals are still yukking about that one today.

The Breast was pretty quiet during the eight years of Janet Reno. As one peeved administration official puts it, “No cameraman was ever at Reno’s feet, trying to get a shot of her with that thing.” But Minnie Lou’s outstanding feature stormed back with Ashcroft. When President Bush visited the Justice Department to rededicate the building to Robert Kennedy, his advance men insisted on a nice blue backdrop: “TV blue,” infinitely preferable to the usual dingy background of the Great Hall. Everyone thought the backdrop worked nicely — made for “good visuals,” as they say. This was Deaverism, pure and simple. Ashcroft’s people intended to keep using it.

An advance woman on his team had the bright idea of buying the backdrop: It would be cheaper than renting it repeatedly. So she did — without Ashcroft’s knowledge, without his permission, without his caring, everyone in the department insists.

But ABC put out the story that Ashcroft, the old prude, had wanted the Breast covered up, so much did it offend his churchly sensibilities. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, ever clever, wrote that Ashcroft had forced a “blue burka” on Minnie Lou. Comedians had a field day (and are still having it). The Washington Post has devoted great space to the story, letting Cher, for example, tee off on it — as she went on to do on David Letterman’s show.

And yet the story is complete and total bunk. First, Ashcroft had nothing to do with the purchase of the backdrop. Second, the backdrop had nothing to do with Breast aversion. But the story was just “too good to check,” as we say, and it will probably live forever. Generations from now, if we’re reading about John Ashcroft, we will read that he was the boob who draped the Boob. The story is ineffaceable.

Things get weirder: Andrew Tobias doubles as treasurer of the Democratic National Committee and a web columnist. He wrote that Ashcroft’s advance team, scouting out the American embassy at The Hague, “saw cats in residence, and got nervous. They were worried there might be a calico cat. No, they were told, no calicos. Visible relief. Their boss, they explained, believes calico cats are signs of the devil. (The advance team also spied a statue of a naked woman in the courtyard, and discussed the possibility of its being covered for the visit, though that request was not ultimately made.)” Ashcroft’s people sigh: Pure fabrication, an invention. Yet it entered the mainstream media — New York Times, no less — and added to the Legend of Ashcroft.

What else? It was objected that Ashcroft, even with a war going on, “found time” to “overturn” the law in Oregon permitting assisted suicide. Here again was the zealot pursuing his own fundamentalist ideology, and being a hypocrite too, for didn’t he believe in “states’ rights”? But Ashcroft was merely stating the obvious: that state law cannot nullify federal law, and that if supporters of assisted suicide wanted federal law to allow different state laws on the subject, they could go ahead and change the federal law — he would enforce it.

Then came the little Islamic contretemps. The conservative Christian journalist Cal Thomas reported that Ashcroft had made the following remark to him: “Islam is a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for Him. Christianity is a faith in which God sends His son to die for you.” Naturally, Arab groups and others pounced on Ashcroft for defaming Islam. Ashcroft, though — like other U.S. officials — has gone out of his way to show “sensitivity” to Muslims. Embarrassed, he explained that, in making that statement, he did not mean to refer to Islam itself, but to the radicals who kill in its name. According to an aide, Ashcroft had used this line — about radical Islam and sons and dying — many times before.

Certainly, Ashcroft could lie a little lower — could tend to his press image — but he doesn’t seem willing to mute himself. He kicked up a fuss when he addressed the National Religious Broadcasters convention in Nashville. Speaking in rolling, religious tones, he contrasted “the way of God” and “the way of the terrorists.” He said that “civilized people — Muslims [note that lead-off!], Christians, and Jews — all understand that the source of freedom and human dignity is the Creator.” It was a stirring speech, belonging to a grand American tradition — and he was flayed for it, by the usual wall-of-separation zealots (who hold Ashcroft to be a religious zealot). One Ashcroft staffer grouses that, when Sen. Joe Lieberman, for example, quotes Scripture or otherwise waxes religious, the reaction tends to be “Ahhh.” But when Ashcroft does: “Eeek!”

And, yes, it’s true: Ashcroft may just break out in song on you. At the end of another recent speech, at a seminary in Charlotte, N.C., he launched into a song that he himself wrote, “Let the Eagle Soar,” a sort of gospel/patriotic number that made the media hoot and howl. Footage of the AG in full vocal flight, so to speak, immediately became a running gag on the Letterman show. Ashcroft may have graduated from Yale College and the University of Chicago Law School — but he has his feet in an American earth that his fellow elites find alien, comical, or frightening.

Every day, John Ashcroft is hit for one thing or another, playing out his role as administration lightning rod. He is called a racist and a fanatic so often, it has almost become boring. Many liberals evidently want to be civil-liberties heroes, preventing, or at least wailing against, the fall of Ashcroftian night. They have not just a bogeyman but a straw man. The attorney general’s backers are weary of seeing their man maligned, but they trust that the attacks are backfiring. Ashcroft’s approval rating is high, around 75 percent. Even most Democratic voters tell pollsters they think Ashcroft is doing a good job — and it is an immense job, in new, peculiar, and daunting circumstances. So, if he needs it, he can take comfort in this: Not everyone is susceptible to the Ashcroft “mooma-jooma.”


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