Politics & Policy

“Polarizing” Patriot

John Ashcroft was among the best attorneys general in American history.

There’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that Attorney General John Ashcroft has resigned. The good news is that this is the last time I’ll have to offer this annoying full disclosure thingamajig: My wife works for John Ashcroft.

These clunky full disclosures are frustrating, but they’re nothing compared to what my wife had to endure as chief speechwriter to the most unfairly vilified public official in modern memory. Jessica’s a brilliant and gifted writer, but she could be Shakespeare and the media would focus on the stodginess of Ashcroft’s iambic pentameter. Conversely, the AG could read from the phonebook and the New York Times would run the headline, “Ashcroft Lists Innocent Americans to be Interned.”

Yet Jessica’s frustrations were grains of sand compared to the desert of misery Ashcroft was subjected to.

Remember the hoopla about Ashcroft ordering those topless statues to be covered up? The immediate reaction from the entire press corps, late-night comics, and all other “enlightened” people was that Ashcroft was proving he was a prude, a square, a Comstock. I think, in fact, he is probably all of those things. But for reasons that still elude me, many people apparently think we need a real hepcat serving as America’s chief law-enforcement officer.

Anyway, the statues were covered up because news organizations just thought it was hilarious to frame pictures of Ashcroft from just the right angle so that he was always depicted alongside a giant bronze boobie or two. Of course, doing such a thing to Janet Reno would have been outrageous, but with Ashcroft the assumption was he should lighten up. So an aide ordered the statues covered because that was the only way to stop it. Politically it was a dumb move, but Ashcroft’s prudery wasn’t what caused it. The press’ giggling obsession with it did.

But that was nothing. The entire Democratic party, which as a group considers it the most outrageous of sins to question anyone’s patriotism–even that of paid Communist spies!–was perfectly comfortable questioning Ashcroft’s patriotism at the drop of hat. He “is no patriot. He’s a direct descendant of Joseph McCarthy,” declared Howard Dean, for example.

Because it was an election year, the leadership of the Democratic party found wisdom in feeding the worst paranoia about the Patriot Act without ever seeming to care that they were undermining a vital law designed to prevent another 9/11. An entire phantasmagoria of tyrannies, oppressions and injustices were alleged to have been spawned out of the hateful Patriot Act–most particularly the dreaded Section 215, which allowed the government to search library records. So intense was the propaganda campaign about this bat-winged clause that Sen. Russell Feingold could say with a straight face that Americans had become “afraid to read books, terrified into silence.” Librarians burned their card catalogs lest The Man find out who borrowed “Huck Finn.”

Of course, not one library was ever searched. Ever. (And who really cares if one was, by the way?)

Such exaggerations have become scripture in many circles. Even Osama bin Laden bought into the propaganda in his latest video, claiming the Patriot Act was an attempt to borrow the oppressive tactics of the Middle East.

The Washington Post’s farewell editorial to Ashcroft this week bemoaned his “rhetoric which questioned the patriotism of those who disagreed with him.” Never happened. “He presided over an alarming roundup of immigrants after the Sept. 11 attacks,” the Post also declared. Also never happened. Yes, after the worst attack on U.S. soil ever conducted by men who gamed the immigration system, the Department of Justice acted. But there were no roundups. Some people were sent letters asking them to voluntarily consent to be interviewed. It’s fine to think that was bad, but if you call that an “alarming roundup of immigrants,” what will you call an actual roundup of immigrants? Genocide?

Other common complaints included concerns about the holding of American citizens as “enemy combatants” and the alleged maltreatment of foreign enemy combatants at Guantanamo. There’s a fair argument there, but those weren’t Ashcroft’s calls. Indeed, the Justice Department wanted jurisdiction over enemy combatants in American courts. It was Bush’s new AG nominee, then White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, who recommended military tribunals.

By conventional standards, Ashcroft was among the best attorneys general in American history. Violent crime dropped 27 percent on his watch, reaching a 30-year low. Federal gun crime prosecutions rose 75 percent, and gun crimes dropped–something that should please liberals. By unconventional standards his service was heroic. There hasn’t been a single terrorist attack since 9/11, despite all predictions by experts and efforts by terrorists to the contrary. Ashcroft was willing to take gross abuse to do what was necessary. Indeed, even the 9/11 commission certified that the Patriot Act was absolutely necessary to fix many of the problems that led to that awful day.

The chorus that treated him so shabbily says it’s good such a “polarizing” figure is leaving. Fine. But maybe it’s too bad the people who made him such a polarizing figure aren’t.

(c) 2004 Tribune Media Services


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