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Ashcroft Deserves a Grilling, But Won't Get It

John Ashcroft, Bush's nominee for attorney general, could conceivably be asked some hard questions by Democrats about his religious right ties. But in reality, he has to worry more about facing spitballs than live ammo.
 
 
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John Ashcroft don't dance. Literally. His aversion to moving in rhythm flows from his fundamentalist Christian faith.

It would be interesting, amusing, and perhaps illuminating if he were to be asked about his anti-boogie sentiments when he appears before the Senate judiciary committee for his confirmation hearings. Not that hoofing is crucial to serving as the nation's top law-enforcement official. (Did we ever see Janet Reno get down, except on Saturday Night Live?) But it would be intriguing to hear the Senator, who will be nominated by George W. Bush to be attorney general, discuss the origins of his core convictions, for Ashcroft has indicated that his religious beliefs influence his stands on public policy.

For example, in 1998 after Senate majority leader Trent Lott uttered an anti-gay remark, Ashcroft noted on Face the Nation, "I believe that the Bible calls [homosexuality] a sin, and so, that's what defines sin for me. So the question is not a public policy question...it was a religious question. In terms of public policy, that the Democratic Party has an agenda of providing a special setting and special rights for homosexuals. I don't believe we should have special rights there, that's the public question. The sin question is...a church question, a religious question; the public policy question is should there be special rights for homosexuals in our culture and in our society, and I don't believe they should be accorded special rights."

That's hardly a sampling of eloquence, but it sure sounds like there is overlap between the religious question and the policy question for Ashcroft. After all, doesn't his opposition to gay rights stem from the sinful activity practiced by gays and lesbians? (When Ashcroft speaks scornfully of "special rights," he is referring to protection from discrimination.)

So what might it mean for a fundamentalist to be in charge at Justice? If Congress passes legislation that bars employment discrimination against homosexuals, how will Ashcroft's Justice Department handle such cases? With enthusiasm or reluctance? And since he considers abortion a deadly sin that must be combatted, how vigorously will Ashcroft enforce the laws that protect access to abortion clinics? Does his obligation to the rule of law transcend his religious views, or not?

For the Democrats, Ashcroft, a champion of the religious right, does appear to be the designated target among the Bush crowd-to-be. But Ashcroft, who lost his Senate reelection bid to a dead guy this past November, has to worry more about facing spitballs than live ammo.

It it unlikely Democrats in the Senate will mount a serious effort to derail Ashcroft's nomination. They might rough him up a little. After all, Ashcroft enraged the African-American community in 1999 by opposing the nomination of Missouri Supreme Court Justice Ronnie White to the federal bench. A year before that, he hailed Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson, the leaders of the pro-slavery South and called on "traditionalists" to defend these men, adding, "We've all got to stand up and speak in this respect, or else we'll be taught that these people were giving their lives, subscribing their sacred fortunes and their honor to some perverted agenda." (In other words, the agenda of the slave-owning secessionists was just fine.) And Ashcroft understandably freaks out abortion rights advocates.

So the Democrats, at least, have to put on a show for their key constituents. But there's no sign they're going to the mattresses over this. (A guy steals the presidency from them, and the Dems don't try to bump off even one of his nominees?) In any event, Democrats are going to be reluctant to delve into the touchy area of Ashcroft's religious beliefs or to grill him on the more foolish aspects of the religious right.

Too bad, Ashcroft provides them a good opening. He has long been close to Pat Robertson. He introduced the televangelist and Christian Coalition founder at the 1992 Republican convention. In 1996, Robertson touted Ashcroft as veep material. In 1998, while Ashcroft was contemplating a presidential bid, Robertson donated $10,000 to Ashcroft's political action committee.

Wouldn't it be fun to see Ashcroft asked this query: In his book, The New World Order, Pat Robertson, your close friend, wrote that President Bush -- the father of the man whose Cabinet you are joining -- was, knowingly or unknowingly, assisting a global conspiracy to bring about Satan's rule of Earth. What do you make of such an assertion? Do you agree with Robertson that Satan is trying to gain control of the world and uses political leaders to do so? If you do, can you please explain how this conspiracy is being waged and identify which political leaders are involved? If you do not, can you please explain why you have accepted so much political support from someone who holds these opinions?

After football star Reggie White created a fuss in 1998, when he told the Wisconsin legislature that abortion is a sin and that America has turned away from God by permitting homosexuality to "run rampant," Ashcroft congratulated him and sent him a note declaring, "You are a credit to sports." This, too, might warrant a probing question or two. Does Ashcroft believe America has disavowed God? If so, how should America get right with the Almighty? Would it help if America eliminated homosexuality by one means or another? What does he think of civil disobedience designed to shut down abortion clinics? If he sincerely believes abortion is mass murder and a sin, shouldn't he encourage such action? But, then, how could he do his job as Attorney General and protect abortion clinics from those anti-abortion fanatics who attempt to block their operations? What a wonderful hearing this could be.

Bush has selected not merely a conservative, but one who hangs with the true believers. In 1997, Ashcroft was encouraged to run for president by leading figures of the religious right, including Paul Weyrich, Michael Farris, and Phyllis Schlafly. He personally took two thousand Promise Keepers on a tour of Washington. In 1998, he came in second on the legislative scorecard of the John Birch Society. (He placed ahead of Jesse Helms and behind Bob Smith.) Yet Bush has praised Ashcroft as a fair-minded man of integrity and principles. Fair-minded? Not if your gay or even merely a political opponent. Ashcroft has been a partisan warrior. During the 1992 campaign, he attacked Bill Clinton for advocating programs that "would cripple" the economy. At the GOP convention, he denounced Democrats for having written God out of their platform and for turning the "traditional family...into any two people with the same address." He has been an ardent critic of the National Endowment for the Arts, denouncing it for "communist-style central planning."

Ashcroft, it should be noted, is no less principled than the average political hack. In 1997, when he was considering a run for the White House, he spoke at a Christian Coalition convention and was greeted by an enthusiastic floor demonstration. He was the only presidential wannabe of several to draw such a response. Since he was merely a less-than-well-known first-term senator, the reaction from the crowd was surprising. His aides denied they had anything to do with this supposedly spontaneous pro-Ashcroft rally. Six weeks later, though, Ashcroft conceded that he and his lieutenants had orchestrated the demonstration. And Ashcroft's fellow Republicans in his home state have raised questions about his open-mindedness. In 1993, as Ashcroft was campaigning (unsuccessfully) to be chairman of the Republican Party, Missouri state Senator Robert Johnson said Ashcroft had stopped talking with him because Johnson favored abortion rights. "He won't take criticism, and if you disagree with him, he knocks you out of the loop, like you don't exist," Johnson said. Other pro-choice Republicans in Missouri groused that Ashcroft had been "exclusionary as a political leader" and tried to freeze out Republicans who did not share his anti-abortion views.

But it's not that Ashcroft should be regarded as a man of conviction who doesn't engage in career-minded political calculations. When he sought the GOP chairmanship, Ashcroft told his party comrades that despite his uncompromising position on abortion he would oversee a big-tent for the party and welcome Republicans who saw abortion differently. Yet five years later -- when the Republican Party was considering adopting a let's-agree-to-disagree stand on abortion -- Ashcroft opposed the move, huffing, "In the party of Lincoln, there can be no place for barbarism." At this time, he was angling to line up social conservatives behind his presidential campaign. In the middle of the Monica mess, Ashcroft was a regular on the cable circuit, blasting away at the philanderer in chief. (During the impeachment trial, he rented his list of campaign contributors to Linda Tripp's legal defense fund.) His Clinton attacks, no doubt heartfelt, were an essential component of Ashcroft's presidential positioning. Then, after the Republicans took a sock in the 1998 congressional elections, he retreated from bash-Clinton politics. He now advised his party to be less divisive and "never confuse politics and piety." His right-wing pals compained about this tactical shift; political journalists saw it as an attempt for Ashcroft to reposition himself for a possible reelection campaign.

Where Ashcroft has best demonstrated he is as craven as most pols is the death penalty. In 1999, when Ashcroft opposed Ronnie White's nomination to the federal bench, Ashcroft tagged White "pro-criminal" because White several times had voted to reverse a death sentence. "Those decisions," Ashcroft asserted, "have occasioned an outcry from the law enforcement community in Missouri." How principled is it to call a judge "pro-criminal" because he or she rules against the death penalty? In fact, White had voted to uphold capital convictions more often than not. And Ashcroft's own appointees to the court had at various times voted to overturn a death sentence. Ashcroft was also duplicitous in citing the "outcry" from the law enforcement community. His office tried -- and failed -- to manufacture such a reaction. It contacted the Missouri Police Chiefs Association, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and urged the group to oppose White. Carl Wolf, the head of the organization, declined the invitation. Wolf told the newspaper that he had never thought of Justice White as "pro-criminal," adding, "I really have a hard time seeing that he's against law enforcement." In the Ronnie White episode, Ashcroft showed little appreciation for the truth. And in 1994, when Ashcroft was running for the Senate, he accused his Democratic opponent, Alan Wheat, of being "kind to murderers." Wheat's offense had been to support educational grants for prisoners. Ashcroft's campaign maintained that "Wheat wants to send killers to Penn State, not the state pen." How clever. Does this mean Ashcroft does not support the notion of rehabilitation? As Attorney General, would he advocate ending any program that helps inmates acquire skills so they can stay straight once they are released? By the way, Wheat's campaign countered that the program Ashcroft found objectionable only provided .5 percent of its grants to prisoners.

Bush, who hails bipartisanship, healing and unity, would have been hard-pressed to have enlisted a more conservative fellow. Ashcroft has opposed child-safety trigger locks on guns and closing the gun-show loophole. He railed against the anti-tobacco bill. He introduced legislation to block funds for implementing the anti-global warming Kyoto protocol. He proposed providing religious organizations with federal funds to support socials services and pushed a $1.8 trillion tax cut (which is even larger than Bush's). He has advocated the elimination of the Department of Commerce, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. (That would make Cabinet meetings more cozy.) When the Department of Health and Human Services announced research findings showing that needle-exchange programs are effective in fighting the transmission of HIV, Ashcroft quipped, "Why not simply provide heroin itself, free of charge, courtesy of the American taxpayer." There's a fellow ready for an honest debate. He is also a fierce crusader for term limits. Would that apply to Cabinet secretaries as well? And Ashcroft talks a mean game on crime. He has blasted Clinton for supposedly going soft on the war on drugs. (Tell that to the Colombian citizens treated brutally by the U.S.-backed Colombian military.) But he was quite permissive when he had to deal with one instance of suspected illegal drug use. At the time Bush was ducking questions about his own use, of drugs, Ashcroft noted, "I don't see any reason not to answer them. I don't think that persons are ineligible if they have had indiscretions in the way they have conducted themselves." Will he be so forgiving when it comes to prosecuting people who are caught in similar indiscretions?

Ashcroft, Bush asserted, is committed "to the fair and impartial administration of justice....He will seek out the truth." Of course, Bush had to praise him. He couldn't say, 'he's a close-minded extremist whom I chose to keep the social conservatives off my back.' Ashcroft is hardly more devoted to truth and integrity than most members of his profession. This is a man who dances not with music but with the politics of death. The Democrats will take a few pokes at him. But Ashcroft probably will get off easy on the fundamentals.