The Senate Judiciary Committee begins hearings Tuesday on the nomination of former Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft, the man President-elect George W. Bush has chosen to serve as Attorney General. Senators should scrutinize Ashcroft and his record on such important issues as civil rights, including protections for gays and women, abortion and gun control.
Ashcroft is the epitome of the conservative Republican. In a previous stint as Missouri attorney general, Ashcroft led the fight opposing the integration of school districts in St. Louis and Kansas City. He has spoken at and received an honorary degree from Bob Jones University, the ultra-conservative institution that until recently banned interracial dating. He was one of the Senate’s staunchest opponents of abortion and gay rights.
Traditionally, former senators have not had much trouble confronting their former colleagues in confirmation hearings. Often called the most exclusive club in the country, the Senate puts great emphasis on courtesy and the collegiality of its members. But perhaps this is one instance where collegiality should bend to the will of the people.
Following an election where more Americans actually voted for the other guy, Bush’s nomination of a reactionary like Ashcroft is disingenuous at best. Rather than actually fulfilling promises by attempting to unite a bitterly divided electorate, Bush chose a man to whom bipartisan cooperation was a dirty phrase to lead the Justice Department.
Bush is behaving instead like a man with a mandate, like Nixon or a Reagan after an enormously successful campaign. How quickly he forgot the month-long struggle to discern the intent of Florida’s voters while the rest of the country listened to Bush peddle platitudes about his being a “uniter, not a divider” and reiterating his “compassionate conservative” ideology. Now it appears as though those phrases were Trojan horses intended to placate the exhausted electorate in preparation for the sucker punch of Ashcroft’s nomination.
Why nominate Ashcroft anyway? This is a man who had so lost the confidence of his constituents that they refused to return him to Washington. In fact the people of Missouri preferred representation by a dead man over that of Ashcroft. Talk about a resounding vote of confidence. If the people of Missouri were finally fed up with Ashcroft, why should they and the rest of the country have to put up with him for another four years as attorney general? If his own constituents do not trust him to enact laws, how can he be trusted to enforce them?
The Republican leader of the Senate, Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott, insists that Ashcroft’s nomination will sail through and he will be confirmed easily. Lott said on CNN that he believed Ashcroft would enforce the country’s laws despite his conservative views. But Democrats are not so sure, and with good reason.
Sunday in St. Louis, 300 people gathered to protest Ashcroft’s nomination at the courthouse where in 1847 slave Dred Scott made national headlines and history when he filed suit to gain his freedom. What bothered these protesters and sits uneasily in the minds of countless others around the country is that while a deliberative body like the Senate can tolerate and even thrives on diverse and sometimes radical opinions, the Justice Department is an agency designed for action where the attorney general’s opinion regarding policy and legal doctrine is nearly sacrosanct.
In the Senate, Ashcroft was, as Lott commented on Hillary Clinton’s election, “one of a hundred.” In the hallowed halls of Justice on Pennsylvania Avenue, Ashcroft is alone atop the principal federal law enforcement agency directing prosecutions and lawsuits, setting department policy, issuing opinions on the legality of governmental action and profoundly affecting a huge range of issues. A man with Ashcroft’s 19th-century sensibilities is not well suited to run Justice in a 21st-century environment.
It is interesting to think what other options were open to Bush when making his nomination. On one hand, the naked moralists and proselytizers of the so-called Christian Right attached themselves to the idea of a conservative attorney general and have held on tenaciously throughout the campaign and subsequent transition. The reason for setting their sights on that particular job comes from a conservative conviction that the Justice Department under Janet Reno was mismanaged and did not conform to their ideas of what constituted the rule of law.
But George W. Bush should look a little further beyond his father’s administration and take a cue from another Republican president. Facing similar circumstances in which a new president’s supporters questioned the integrity of his predecessor’s Justice Department, Gerald Ford took a different tack. He nominated Edward Levi, a non-political figure who at the time headed the University of Chicago. Perhaps Bush will learn his lesson if Ashcroft is defeated.
-The writer is Hatchet opinions editor.