Irrational hysteria is never pretty, and the demonizing of John Ashcroft during the past four years has been just about the ugliest spectacle in US politics. As the attorney general prepares to return to private life, he deserves thanks not only for doing an admirable job in a time of uncertainty and danger but also for the uncomplaining dignity with which he has borne the gross abuse heaped on him by his enemies.
The lynching began as soon as he was nominated by President-elect Bush four years ago. People for the American Way compared him to the "virulent segregationists" of the Jim Crow South. Handgun Control Inc. likened his views to those of "convicted mass-murderer Timothy McVeigh." The Los Angeles Times depicted him in a cartoon as a Klansman, complete with white robe and hood. It was a contemptible pack of smears. And it was just the beginning.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, it fell to Ashcroft to lead the administration's legal fight against terrorism. He made aggressive use of the powers given to him by law -- including the enhanced authority provided by the new Patriot Act -- to root out terror cells, arrest suspected Al Qaeda conspirators, and freeze the assets of groups suspected of terrorist ties. Since 9/11 the Justice Department has secured 194 terror-related convictions, including those of Richard Reid, John Walker Lindh, and radical Islamist cadres in Seattle, northern Virginia, and Lackawanna, N.Y.
But for taking the threat of terrorism seriously, Ashcroft was turned into Public Enemy No. 1. The ACLU accused him of having led "a massive assault on our most basic rights" and displaying "an open hostility to protecting civil liberties." CBS News titled him the "Minister of Fear." A song parody, "The Twelve Days of Fascism," was widely posted on the Internet, including at Democrats.com (Excerpt: "On the third day of fascism, John Ashcroft gave to me/ Three wiretappings/ Two detained Muslims/ And a Department of Homeland Security.") And on the presidential campaign trail, the candidates libeled him with gusto:
"John Ashcroft is not a patriot. John Ashcroft is a descendant of Joseph McCarthy." (Howard Dean)
"We cannot allow people like John Ashcroft to take away our rights, our freedoms, and our liberties." (John Edwards)
"I look out at this audience, and there are people from every background, every creed, every color, every belief, every religion. This is indeed John Ashcroft's worst nightmare." (John Kerry)
One of the most grotesque calumnies came from the prominent columnist Anthony Lewis. "Certainty is the enemy of decency and humanity in people who are sure they are right," he told The New York Times in an interview, "like Osama bin Laden and John Ashcroft." In the fever swamps of the left, there is no important difference between the man who masterminded 9/11 and the man trying to ensure that the horrors of 9/11 are never repeated.
Ashcroft's backing for the Patriot Act was a particular target of scorn. The American Library Association revved up a hysterical campaign against Section 215 of the law, claiming that it posed a dire threat to the privacy of library records. When it turned out that Section 215 (which doesn't mention libraries) had never even been invoked, the ALA was not the least bit chastened. Making war on the attorney general and the Patriot Act had turned out to be great for PR. As a gleeful editorial in Library Journal put it, "If we didn't have Attorney General Ashcroft, we would have to invent him."
Some critics, not content with mere venom, went for actual cruelty. When Ashcroft ended up in intensive care with pancreatitis, TV host Bill Maher told his audience that doctors "think he may have picked up some sort of infection wiping his ass with the Bill of Rights."
Such loathing of Ashcroft might be understandable if he had done something truly loathsome -- ordered an attack on a religious minority in Waco, Texas, say, and caused the deaths of 70 people. But there is nothing like that in Ashcroft's record. His tenure as attorney general hasn't been marred by scandal or coverup. He has presided over a sharp drop in violent crime and an even sharper increase in federal gun crime prosecutions. The civil rights laws have been vigorously enforced, and more than 500 corporate fraud defendants have been convicted. Above all, there has been no repeat of 9/11 on his watch.
Americans have been well served by their 79th attorney general. Under daunting circumstances he performed with decency and fortitude. The nation is safer and stronger because he served, and all of us are in his debt.