By Ashcroft’s Standards, He Ought to Be History

If John Ashcroft were held to the same kind of political

standard he applied in evaluating Presidential nominations as a Senator from

Missouri, his bid to become the next Attorney General would be defeated easily.

His conservative defenders now tell us without blushing that ideology isn’t a

valid reason to oppose him. Perhaps they’ve forgotten how eagerly Mr. Ashcroft

and others in their camp obstructed President Clinton’s nominees on narrowly

ideological grounds. More likely they are pretending to forget, as they pursue

their objective of the moment.

Mr. Ashcroft was, in fact, one of the most resolutely

ideological members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and of the Senate as a

whole, when it was his responsibility to give advice and consent on

Presidential nominations.

When Bill Lann Lee was

nominated to head the Justice Department’s civil rights division a few years

ago, the Missouri Republican led the opposition that prevented his

confirmation. Mr. Ashcroft’s objections to that nomination had nothing to do

with Mr. Lee’s credentials or character, which were outstanding. Instead, he

held up the Lee nomination only because he disagreed with Mr. Lee about

affirmative action. That was enough for the Missouri Senator to scuttle him

without the slightest respect for Presidential prerogatives.

Mr. Ashcroft’s conduct

was equally unprincipled in fighting the appointments of David Satcher and

Henry Foster, both distinguished physicians, to the post of Surgeon General. In

both instances, Mr. Ashcroft joined an obdurate minority whose opposition was

based solely on the nominees’ position on reproductive rights. While most

Republicans accepted Dr. Satcher’s promise that he would not use the office of

Surgeon General to promote abortion rights-a pledge not unlike that made by

supporters of Mr. Ashcroft today-that wasn’t good enough for Mr. Ashcroft. He

tried and failed to instigate a filibuster against Dr. Satcher. (For good

measure, he also slandered Dr. Satcher on the Senate floor as “someone

indifferent to infanticide.”)

That was the same strategy he had used a few years earlier,

and with more success, against Dr. Foster, when Mr. Ashcroft and 42 other

Senators won a vote to prevent cloture on the doctor’s nomination. And of

course, he joined with Senator Jesse Helms when they employed a similar tactic

to block a vote on the ambassadorial nomination of James Hormel, simply because

Mr. Hormel is openly gay.

Back then, we heard no high-minded rhetoric about

Presidential prerogative and ideological neutrality from those who now support

Mr. Ashcroft. Such considerations are invoked only when politically convenient

and may otherwise be discarded without a second thought.

Mr. Ashcroft is fortunate that his former colleagues aren’t

approaching his nomination with the ugly opportunism that marred his own Senate

career. Nevertheless, they shouldn’t hesitate to ask him difficult questions

that reflect on his fitness to serve as the nation’s highest law enforcement

officer:

“Why should anyone believe that you will protect women’s

right to choose abortion, when you have denounced the Supreme Court decision

upholding that right as ‘illegitimate’?”

“Why should anyone trust you to enforce federal gun-control

laws when you have so assiduously courted the support not only of the National

Rifle Association but of the even more extreme Gun Owners of America? Why did

you urge Missouri voters to approve a law permitting almost anyone to carry a

concealed weapon in 1999?”

“What inspired you to tell the editors of Southern Partisan magazine-a periodical

which has repeatedly praised the assassination of Abraham Lincoln-that you

admire their ‘traditionalist’ defense of ‘Southern patriots’ like Jefferson

Davis? If waging war to extend slavery wasn’t a ‘perverted agenda,’ then what

is? And what possessed you, during that same interview, to endorse the

legitimacy of the secessionist Missouri government, which fled to Texas during

the Civil War? How do you square those views with your oath to uphold the

Constitution?”

“For what reasons did you so consistently oppose every

effort to integrate the public schools of St. Louis and Kansas City without

ever proposing a constructive alternative?”

“Why, since you are so

resolutely tough on crime, did you meet with the president of the St. Louis

Council of Conservative Citizens last fall to discuss the case of Dr. Charles

T. Sell, a C.C.C. member indicted for plotting to murder an F.B.I. agent? Why

did your office write letters to federal authorities about Dr. Sell’s case at

the behest of the C.C.C.? On what other occasions, if any, have you interceded

with the Justice Department on behalf of a criminal defendant?”

The current hearings should serve to illustrate why so many

Americans believe Mr. Ashcroft ought not to be entrusted to protect their

rights under the law. If Senate Democrats and moderate Republicans cannot

muster the courage to reject this nominee, they must at least demand that he

repudiate the most offensive and extreme aspects of his own sorry record.