January 12, 2001


The Case Against Ashcroft

The perception that he's racially insensitive is reason enough to sink his nomination.

By Albert R. Hunt

There is a simple formulation for deciding whether opposition to a new president's cabinet choices is justified: If the situation were exactly reversed—the other guy won and tapped the polar opposite for a post—would opposition seem reasonable?

By that standard, if a President-elect Gore chooses as his interior secretary a liberal environmentalist who's been associated with green zealots, but who is smart and experienced, the choice should be confirmed. Likewise, despite screams from the environmental community that she's "James Watt in a skirt," so should Gale Norton, George W. Bush's interior secretary-designate.

But if a President-elect Gore picked an attorney general who was a stridently left-wing Democrat and had deeply offended an important minority—for example, religious conservatives—most Republicans understandably would try to block that selection.

That's why Senate Democrats ought to fight the nomination of John Ashcroft to head the Justice Department. There should be a different standard for the attorney general, who must engender public confidence in guaranteeing equal justice for all Americans. If a commerce or energy secretary favors one area or sector over another, that may just be good politics. But if an attorney general is perceived as for or against one group of Americans, it sours faith and confidence in the rule of law.

John Ashcroft is a moral man. But he's also a narrow ideologue who is bitterly opposed—for some legitimate reasons—by many African-Americans. Indeed, he was defeated in his bid for re-election in November by the deceased Democratic governor, Mel Carnahan, because blacks doubled their normal turnout in Missouri to vote against him.

Ashcroft defenders accuse critics of playing the race card; they claim the real objection is that Mr. Ashcroft is deeply religious (a fundamentalist Christian), is stridently antiabortion, and is politically attuned.

Yet if another former Missouri Republican senator, John Danforth—a pro-life Episcopalian priest—had been chosen as attorney general, it would have been widely accepted by almost all Democrats. Mr. Danforth commands the bipartisan respect necessary for an attorney general. Close Bush confidant and outgoing Montana governor Marc Racicot might have engendered similar support. But he was vetoed for attorney general by the political right.

That contingent is an important part of the Bush coalition and thus exercises influence. But a narrow bloc shouldn't be given the right to select an attorney general.

John Ashcroft was Missouri's governor and attorney general before his one term in the Senate. His record on race issues is pervasively negative: He fought school desegregation plans, opposed affirmative action and hate-crime legislation, took an honorary degree from racist Bob Jones University in 1999, and conducted an interview with a pro-Confederate magazine in which he defended Civil War-era Southern leaders and complained that their cause was unfairly depicted as a "perverted agenda" (the cause was slavery).

No one should doubt Mr. Ashcroft's sincerity. But neither should anyone doubt that collectively, to many African-Americans, these positions suggest an insensitivity, or even hostility.

This was crystallized when Sen. Ashcroft lobbied the Senate to reject the federal judgeship nomination of Justice Ronnie White of the Missouri Supreme Court. Justice White would have been the first black federal judge from Missouri but was rejected on a party-line vote. Mr. Ashcroft, who initially seemed to support the nomination, charged that Justice White was a "pro-criminal" judge who often dissented on the death penalty for violent offenders and was opposed by the law enforcement community.

The truth was that law-enforcement opposition to Justice White—not universal by any means—was drummed up by Sen. Ashcroft, that Justice White voted for the death penalty in 70% of the relevant cases before his court, and that the two most publicized exceptions involved a plainly biased judge in one case and a clearly incompetent lawyer (for a brutal murderer) in the other.

As Stuart Taylor, the able legal-affairs writer for National Journal, reported at the time, these dissents were close calls on which "reasonable judges could disagree." But there was nothing reasonable about the Ashcroft-led distortion and smearing of Justice White's record, which, Mr. Taylor wrote, "were shameful acts of pettiness and partisanship."

Ronnie White testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee and received written questions from Sen. Ashcroft; never once did the senator ask the judicial nominee about the death penalty cases that he later claimed were the basis for his opposition. What really was at stake was Sen. Ashcroft's tough re-election. The Washington Post, quoting Ashcroft allies, reported he engaged "in pure politics" to defeat Justice White and further his own prospects. Mr. Ashcroft was willing to use the race card for political purposes. That's not unusual in politics, on either side. But it's not a commendation for an attorney general.

Sen. Ashcroft subsequently lost his re-election contest even though Carnahan died in a plane crash weeks before the election and it was known his widow, Jean Carnahan, would be appointed if Carnahan won. Sen. Ashcroft is praised by supporters for his supposedly "gracious" concession. But he lost by 51,000 votes; senators on the fence ought to ask Mrs. Carnahan if she thinks her predecessor was "gracious."

Finally, remember all those Republicans who vilified Janet Reno for a supposedly partisan administration of justice over the past seven years. Do they believe that John Ashcroft will be seen as an independent, above-the-fray attorney general on political corruption or campaign-finance violations or potential investigations of anyone close to President Bush? One of the most serious criminal-justice problems in America is the widespread perception by many African-Americans that the system is stacked against them. Whether exaggerated or not, it only will be exacerbated with John Ashcroft as attorney general.

The conventional wisdom is that the Senate club will not reject one of its own; that's probably true. But that was the view 12 years ago when former senator John Tower was nominated for defense secretary; it changed only when a respected senator, Sam Nunn, decided to lead the opposition.

That's the only way Mr. Ashcroft could be seriously challenged. There is one Democratic senator who fits that bill. Does Joe Lieberman have the political mettle to do it?

Mr. Hunt is executive Washington editor of The Wall Street Journal. His column appears in the Journal on Thursdays. This article is reprinted with permission from OpinionJournal.com, a web site from Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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