Ashcroft a Threat to Freedom of Press

I have veered from regarding John Ashcroft as an amusing piece of political Americana to seeing him as a bona fide threat to the First Amendment since I first encountered him in 1992. I was covering the Republican National Convention in Houston for what is now the Bloomington, Indiana Independent and found myself, along with a handful of other hacks, in a room where a few dozen self-described "Evangelical Conservatives" had gathered. When a colleague and I walked in, the meeting had commenced, and a prayer circle was underway.

As is often the case in these settings, the exultation of the Almighty was anything but brief. I was slouching towards somnambulance as the appeal droned on and on, when a verbal thunderclap jolted me back to reality. The speaker's modulation had not changed (his timbre was as stupifyingly monotone as it gets). What jarred me from my increasingly narcoleptic state was the substance of a particular comment the speaker the made. My notes don't specify what the preface to his section of homily was, but I managed to record this:

"... the people of America will see through the distortion of the printed page, and that those in the media would join us to spread the truth of His word."

I blinked in amazement; a glimpse towards my colleagues confirmed that I had not imagined it. "Who the hell is this guy?" I asked one. "That's John Ashcroft, the governor of Missouri," someone replied.

I was both amused and offended; not only did it seem an amazingly craven act -- taking a shot at ol' debbbil "liberal media" whilst cowering behind the shield of faith, head bowed and eyes closed, refusing to do the ostensible enemy even the courtesy of eye contact -- but it seemed a gross violation of the unwritten rules of engagement between politicos and journos. It's one thing to get pissy over a piquant question on an issue, but praying for us because we're not plying our wordsmithery in the service of a deity?

After the session broke up I rushed for the gov and asked him if he was planning on making his prayer for the media a staple of his repertoire, as I was sure it would only endear him to the fourth estate as a sagacious politician worthy of respect and relevance. He shot me a look in response that I can only describe as un-Christian and stalked away.

After that experience, I was inclined to dismiss Ashcroft as a sort of bemusing walking malignancy, a comically uncosmetic melanoma on the already-diseased American body politic. But as I watched Missouri send Ashcroft to Washington and Ashcroft ascend -- courtesy of the fiscal aid of religious conservatives (as well as the liquor and tobacco lobbies) -- my amusement gave way to grave foreboding. With every act, every utterance of his, I found myself going back to that moment in Houston and shuddering, as I now fully appreciate Ashcroft's reality: there is no distinction between serving the public and serving his particular Jehovah. And that particular Jehovah seems to think that I, and anyone else who disagrees with his Apostle on Earth, is in need of some sort of re-education.

It would be one thing if the ex-Senator (who I hope appreciated the irony of being defeated by one who died but metaphorically lived on in the hearts of a majority of Missourians) was being dispatched to some department where he could make only so much trouble, like, say, Commerce. But when one considers that Ashcroft could be responsible for enforcing any future, Americanized version of the Official Secrets Act (approved by both houses of Congress, vetoed by Clinton, but expected to come up again), his 1992 comments portend an interpretation of the law that does not bode well for the free press clause of the First Amendment.

Indeed, despite his assertion that he will act as a "guardian of liberty and equal justice" in the service of the "rule of law," which he defines as something that "knows no class, sees no color and bows to no creed," his characterization of those judges who hold that a woman's legal right to choose an abortion is indeed Constitutional as "judicial despots" gives one pause. (He also considers those who try, from the Federal bench, to rectify the remnants of segregated schools, halt anti-affirmative action or anti-homosexual initiatives, "tyrannical activists," and once referred to a liberal voting block of the Supreme Court as "five ruffians in robes".)

That officials of his party worked with Federal, state and local authorities last year to actively keep people from protesting against his party at its convention -- both by perimeter management and infiltration -- also bodes ill for the First Amendment's bit about freedom of assembly. And doubtless he'll instruct his minions in the US Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia to do what they've always done to activists who continue to agitate for the Federal Colony's emancipation: prosecute vigorously when activists peacefully gather in the Capitol Rotunda.

And, from his new perch as Attorney General, there's no doubt he'll throw the full weight of the Justice Department behind one of his more insidious assaults on the First Amendment, the "charitable choice" program he slipped into the draconian 1996 Welfare Reform Act. Referred to by the decidedly bland and non-partisan National Journal as perhaps "the biggest blurring of the lines between church and state in many decades," this little gem of a provision essentially gives Federal money to any faith-based organization to provide whatever social services it wants to the poor, addicted and afflicted, and to do so with a license to proselytize. Several legal challenges based on the program's blatant violation of the establishment clause are underway. But as those challenges mount, Ashcroft's congressional allies are trying to expand "charitable choice" from social services to faith-based education programs as well.

Conventional wisdom in Washington holds that Ashcroft is in for a bruising, if not bloody, set of confirmation hearings, but that he'll emerge as Attorney General in the end. If, however, he does fail on the Hill, it's entirely possible he'll have another role in the Bush Administration, perhaps as special envoy to Iran. Doubtless the mullahs would find Ashcroft's brand of conservatism appealing.


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