In light of what’s happened since, it now sounds foolish that the Bush administration would ever have put out word that the new attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, would be more open and bring a softer touch to his job than did his controversial predecessor, John Ashcroft.
In the days following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Ashcroft became the point man for an administration seeking controversial new powers to fight what many saw as a new and potentially deadly enemy willing and able to strike at the U.S. homeland itself. Liberals had opposed the former Missouri senator’s appointment as attorney general and were immediately skeptical of his performance in an office that had become more important than ever before.
Ashcroft and his people cobbled together and won overwhelming support for the still-controversial USA Patriot Act and seemed to turn a blind eye to any suggestion that as attorney general he had an obligation not simply to reflect the president’s desires, but to advise the president on what could and could not be done under the strictures of our Constitution. Leftists around the country operated on the assumption that Ashcroft and others within the administration were involved in a conspiracy to undermine civil liberties and transform the country into something none of us would much like.
It turns out, of course, that Ashcroft was doing no such thing. He was, in fact, doing exactly what he should have been doing. He was trying to balance the need for new weapons to thwart our nation’s enemies with his dedication to the Constitution. In doing so, it now appears that he was in a constant war with others in the administration who thought him soft on terrorism and too wedded to what they viewed as outmoded ways of looking at the Founders’ restrictions on executive authority.
Ironically, when he finally packed it in, civil libertarians celebrated his departure without realizing that within the administration there were celebrations among those who thought he was too dedicated to observing constitutional niceties. They didn’t realize that in terms of constitutional rights, he wasn’t the fox in the chicken coop, but the guard keeping the fox out.
What’s more, Ashcroft did his job the way it is supposed to be done. He made his views known within the administration in the strongest terms possible, but accepted the role he had to play when he lost the argument and then decided, when he could no longer go along in the direction his colleagues were taking, that it was time to leave. He could have handled things differently. Anyone who has lived in this town can name a dozen former government officials who lived by the leak to curry support for their positions through the media.
Ashcroft was better positioned to do this than almost anyone imaginable. Think for a minute of what might have happened if the attorney general had let it be known that his concerns for traditional constitutional safeguards were being ignored or that the White House chief of staff and the president’s counsel had tried to do what Alberto Gonzales and Andy Card in fact tried while he lay in pain in George Washington Hospital.
To say that it would have been front-page news is an understatement. He would have transformed himself in an instant from press goat to hero and put the administration in an incredibly awkward position.
There are those who would have applauded him had he gone public or at least allowed his views to leak to the press, but that would not have been John Ashcroft. Whatever anyone thinks about him, he has always been a man of honor who has stuck with his values no matter what.
I disagreed with much of what transpired during his tenure at Justice and wondered from time to time just how the John Ashcroft I knew and admired from his days in the Senate and before could act as he seemed to be acting in his new job. I noted publicly that his voting record as a senator revealed him as a man dedicated to the Constitution and the views of the Founders, but assumed that he had forgotten or was ignoring his predilections as the administration moved quickly, if not always cautiously, to mobilize for this new threat to the country.
I was wrong. John Ashcroft never compromised his beliefs or bowed to expediency. He lived up to his oath and his values.
He was, in short, that rarest of politicians: a class act.
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