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A Qualified Defense of John Ashcroft

Now that he's resigning and the subject of liberal condescension to religious people is in the news, I think it's time to offer a qualified defense of John Ashcroft. To be perfectly clear here and not be accused of having become some kind of Ashcroft-apologist, let's set the terms of the debate. In 2000, and then again in 2004, a conservative Republican won the White House. I am neither a conservative nor a Republican. As such, I don't really approve of any of the people he's appointed to any office. That, however, is in the nature of things. One can and should expect even politicians with whom you disagree to conduct themselves in office in a manner that reflects neither gross incompetence nor gross corruption. George W. Bush and his appointees have repeatedly failed on this latter score. That, and not the fact that they have an ideology I do not share, is what makes this administration so remarkable.

Ashcroft, I think, is basically an exception to this trend. For all the talk of Ashcroft and civil liberties, it has pretty consistently been Don Rumsfeld, rather than Ashcroft, who's gone the furthest in shredding the rule of law in the pursuit of terrorism suspects. The alterations to the American criminal justice system that have come from the Justice Department -- as witnessed in the USA PATRIOT Act, rather than the Defense Department's bizarre "let's hold prisoners off the books scheme" -- almost entirely reflect long-held desires of the professionals on the DOJ staff and in the FBI. That does not make all of these things good ideas. It does mean, however, that John Aschcroft has nothing in particular to do with the fact that they wound up getting proposed and implemented after 9-11-2001. The Clinton administration, in fact, proposed similar measures and the wish list that became the USA PATRIOT Act was largely developed during the Clinton years. Some of this stuff is bad, and more of it than I think most liberals recognize is good, but very little of it has much of anything to do with Ashcroft.

On the "values issues" Ashcroft has substantive views that I find repugnant. And yet, near as I can tell Ashcroft has conducted himself in office with regard to these issues in a perfectly appropriate way -- attempting to enforce the existing laws. There was, during his confirmation hearings, this subtext that Ashcroft would somehow undermine Civil Rights law or turn a blind eye to anti-abortion terrorism or some such thing. It hasn't happened. Civil Rights enforcement hasn't been quite as vigorous as I would like, but this is what happens when the Republicans get into office. Again, Ashcroft is not the issue.

Nor has the Justice Department displayed the proclivity for screwing things up that we've witnessed over and over again from the national security and economic policy teams. On those two fronts one can point to fairly long strings of disasters, where courses of action were embarked upon contrary to the advice of most qualified experts, with almost exactly the results the qualified experts would have predicted. You've seen a bizarre policymaking process in which different parties don't really debate, and the president doesn't really consider his options before charging off in one direction or another. I have no idea whether the Interior Department is being mismanaged in a similar way, but that's because no one ever talks about the Interior Department. Ashcroft, on the other hand, has been a constant subject of liberal and Democratic scorn since the day of his appointment, and allegations of this sort don't seem to have arisen.

In sum, I don't expect liberals to like John Ashcroft. He's on the other side. We disagree with him about a bunch of stuff. We shouldn't like him. But by that same token, we shouldn't like any of Bush's people. The question is why does Ashcroft get singled out as particular bad among this crew? People hate Bush with good reason. Likewise Cheney and Rumsfeld and, for those who know there names, many of Cheney and Rumsfeld's subordinates. These are men who have gone above and beyond the call of duty in screwing the country up. But what has Ashcroft done to deserve elevation to the Cheney/Rumsfeld pantheon of badness? Not much. His decision to appoint a professional prosecutor as his Deputy Attorney-General and his subsequent decision to recuse himself from the Valerie Plame matter has been the source of the only serious criminal investigation into White House conduct that we've seen over the past four years. He has not staffed his agency with hacks and know-nothings. The Justice Department's dim view of civil liberties is longstanding and reflects the widespread outlook of law enforcement professionals, and the FBI's troubled relationship with counterterrorism likewise long predates the Bush administration.

It's hard for me to avoid the conclusion that, in this case, much of the ire Ashcroft has attracted reflects a kind of liberal prejudice against his religious beliefs. I think these beliefs are funny, too. Annointing yourself in Crisco? The rumors that he thinks calico cats are tools of Satan? Weird stuff. His singing. Weird and hokey. I really, really, really wouldn't want to have a beer with him. And he doesn't drink for religious reasons. Weird. Or gamble. Weird. Or dance. Weird. But of Bush's major cabinet appointees, he certainly hasn't been the worst, and he may well have been the best. The rumor is that Ashcroft will be replaced by Larry Franklin [EDIT: That's Larry Thompson, very different person], who is not weird, and who, like Ashcroft, seems committed to running a serious, professional Justice Department and also has a bunch of political views with which I disagree. We should be so lucky as to have men like that running the rest of the government.

November 10, 2004 | Permalink

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Comments

And, let's not forget, you haven't seen any "good rental cars" being used on American citizens under Ashcroft's watch. You don't like his politics, but in many respects he's a VAST improvement over his predecessor.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Nov 10, 2004 10:29:12 AM

Matt Y., I think you and Sen. Russ Feingold are pretty much on the same page here. Feingold caught a lot of flack from various quarters for voting to confirm Ashcroft's appointment back in 2001, but it was undeserved. The sooner Democrats get serious about qualifications and stop with the personal crap, the better. The quirks of Ashcroft were harmless enough, although covering that statue's bare breat was pretty goofy if you ask me.

Posted by: David W. | Nov 10, 2004 10:29:25 AM

This is wrong almost across the board.

- Values issues: Spent way more time investigating prostitution in New Orleans than home-grown extremists. Covered up the boob on the statue of Justice. (C'mon, wtf...)

- Screw-ups: See what's happened with Padilla, Lackawanna, and other failed/botched prosecutions.

Posted by: bobo brooks | Nov 10, 2004 10:30:21 AM

No real serious terrorist attacks on US soil since 9/11. Case closed. Ashcroft was an excellent AG.

(Oh, and it's Larry Thompson, not Larry Franklin.)

Posted by: Al | Nov 10, 2004 10:31:36 AM

It's hard for me to avoid the conclusion that, in this case, much of the ire Ashcroft has attracted reflects a kind of liberal prejudice against his religious beliefs.


Duh. Could that be any more obvious?

Posted by: Al | Nov 10, 2004 10:32:35 AM

As I recall, there have been a few home-grown terrorists caught in the U.S., with that guy in Texas being the most notable one.

I do agree that the holding of citizens like Padilla without formal charges being made or access to legal representation allowed was foolish, and a waste of the DoJ's time.

Posted by: David W. | Nov 10, 2004 10:34:05 AM

although covering that statue's bare breat was pretty goofy if you ask me.

Never happened:

The Breast was pretty quiet during the eight years of Janet Reno. As one peeved administration official puts it, "No cameraman was ever at Reno's feet, trying to get a shot of her with that thing." But Minnie Lou's outstanding feature stormed back with Ashcroft. When President Bush visited the Justice Department to rededicate the building to Robert Kennedy, his advance men insisted on a nice blue backdrop: "TV blue," infinitely preferable to the usual dingy background of the Great Hall. Everyone thought the backdrop worked nicely — made for "good visuals," as they say. This was Deaverism, pure and simple. Ashcroft's people intended to keep using it.

An advance woman on his team had the bright idea of buying the backdrop: It would be cheaper than renting it repeatedly. So she did — without Ashcroft's knowledge, without his permission, without his caring, everyone in the department insists.

But ABC put out the story that Ashcroft, the old prude, had wanted the Breast covered up, so much did it offend his churchly sensibilities. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, ever clever, wrote that Ashcroft had forced a "blue burka" on Minnie Lou. Comedians had a field day (and are still having it). The Washington Post has devoted great space to the story, letting Cher, for example, tee off on it — as she went on to do on David Letterman's show.

And yet the story is complete and total bunk. First, Ashcroft had nothing to do with the purchase of the backdrop. Second, the backdrop had nothing to do with Breast aversion. But the story was just "too good to check," as we say, and it will probably live forever. Generations from now, if we're reading about John Ashcroft, we will read that he was the boob who draped the Boob. The story is ineffaceable.

Posted by: Ugh | Nov 10, 2004 10:35:59 AM

You missed at least one point worth mentioning: A compentent Justice Department should have, by this point, figured out the perpetrator of the 2001 anthrax attacks. And you'd think they'd have been able to rack up at least one conviction of a terrorist suspect that wasn't overturned on appeal.

Posted by: Fred | Nov 10, 2004 10:36:19 AM

Wasn't there a big long expose in one of the political magazine recently about how Ashcroft has stuffed DoJ with Federalist society hacks and cronies loyal to nothing other than the Republican party?

Posted by: Marshall | Nov 10, 2004 10:38:03 AM

I see that Matt is burnishing his counter-intuitive-liberal cred, possibly planning on moving up from the low-paying Prospect. (Little-known fact: Judith Miller, the one who stovepiped Chalabi disinformation in the NYT, began her career working for the uber-liberal "Progressive".)

Al's name counts for a lot in media circles, so winning back his respect is an important move. Brett Bellmore isn't a kingmaker of Al's stature, but every little bit helps.

No really serious attacks on US soil in the three years before 9/11 either, Al. There haven't ever been many, especially not by foreigners.

Posted by: Zizka | Nov 10, 2004 10:39:59 AM

I also want to echo Fred: Ashcroft has not convicted one terrorist. For all the fear-mongering post-9/11 about how they could be anywhere, that's a terrible record.

Posted by: Marshall | Nov 10, 2004 10:40:29 AM

About the great statue cover up, it's no big deal. I'm more offended by the judgment that looking good for TV is more important than the display of the sculptural arts. Well, Rome didn't fall in a day I know... :-)

Posted by: David W. | Nov 10, 2004 10:47:05 AM

> And yet the story is complete and
> total bunk. First, Ashcroft had
> nothing to do with the purchase of
> the backdrop. Second, the backdrop
> had nothing to do with Breast
> aversion.

Interesting observations. Now that reminds me of something... Oh yeah, the "vandalism" of the White House by the outgoing Clinton staffers that NEVER HAPPENED. Good thing Ashcroft took such a strong stand against partisian libel in that case.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer | Nov 10, 2004 10:47:18 AM

Good post. Pentecostals can freak out even red staters, so God only knows the visceral impact Ashcroft's faith has on blue state elites. On the other side, though, people could point to a series of stalled or overturned prosecutions of supposed "sleeper cells" that seem in hindsight poorly judged and/or incompetently managed.

Posted by: rd | Nov 10, 2004 10:48:46 AM

About that terrorist case in Texas, here's a past report on the arrest:

http://www.csmonitor.com/2003/1229/p02s01-usju.html

Posted by: David W. | Nov 10, 2004 10:49:33 AM

Read the resignation letter and remember the press conferences. The ludicrous level of self-aggrandisement and umm, not-reality-based appearance is enough reason to dislike him. The covering of the statues was an example, he was a ridiculous figure to many. Neither likable or frightening. And easily used by others with agendas, as you indicate in your post. My actual guess is that behind the scenes he might even have been a restraining influence.

In performance, I think he messed up in demanding too many death penalty cases in New York organized crime, to a degree that plea-bargaing and information gathering was damaged. IIRC.
....
OTOH, I do consider him of the most honorable men in the administration. His performance in vice control was restrained, and targeted at high-profile and precedent-setting examples intended to deter. I was pleasantly surprised. He was no martinet. The precedents and tools he developed during his tenure are almost terrifying, even tho I don't believe Asgcroft himself used or abused them to a large degree.
.....
The religion in itself does not make people uncomfortable, but the particular denomination attached to a person authoritarian in nature and ascetic in practice, placed in a position of power was frightening. Shirley MacLaine has weird beliefs, but she does not frighten me.
.....
He is totally unqualified to be Chief Justice.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Nov 10, 2004 10:49:38 AM

Shorter MY: A lot of people were worse.
True, but they've also come in for their fair share of criticism. So how does that help Ashcroft?

Posted by: C.J.Colucci | Nov 10, 2004 10:52:24 AM

"One can and should expect even politicians with whom you disagree to conduct themselves in office in a manner that reflects neither gross incompetence nor gross corruption. George W. Bush and his appointees have repeatedly failed on this latter score. That, and not the fact that they have an ideology I do not share, is what makes this administration so remarkable."

Thank you, Matt. Quoted at length because this is something I've been trying to say for the past week. That, plus the fact that a majority of voters seem to think that it's still all about ideology and not competence -- that's what bothers me most about the election result.

"...the USA PATRIOT Act was largely developed during the Clinton years. ...very little of it has much of anything to do with Ashcroft."

To the extent that that's true, it omits an interesting irony: Ashcroft was dead-set against the (ostensibly) anti-terrorism reforms of the Clinton adminsration. Because they were aimed at his friends in the white-power militias? Who knows.

Posted by: Grumpy | Nov 10, 2004 10:54:48 AM

Personally, I only need one reason to dislike Ashcroft. He and the DOJ spent enormous amounts of time and energy trying to overturn Oregon's assisted suicide law.

You think that "much of the ire Ashcroft has attracted reflects a kind of liberal prejudice against his religious beliefs"? Yes, he and Bush are reportedly referred to as the Blues Brothers by other Cabinet members because they are "on a mission from God." But I think you might be confusing cause and effect. Is it appropriate for Ashcroft to shape DOJ policy based on his personal religious beliefs? What about states' rights? What about democratic processes? The voters of Oregon voted not once, but twice on referendums to have an assisted suicide law. Where do Ashcroft and the DOJ get off thinking their opinions take priority over those of Oregon's voters?

Posted by: Matthew | Nov 10, 2004 11:01:49 AM

I'd prefer an Attorney General who does not go after, say, Tommy Chong for selling pipes on the internet.

But that's just me.

Posted by: Jaybird | Nov 10, 2004 11:02:12 AM

I see Al's in cheerleader mode today. I don't begrude Ashcroft's religious and personal practices, but I'd like to add an extra bit of qualification to the defense. As an unabashed liberal, it hurts me to see Ashcroft's religious beliefs translated into official policy and bullshit PR cases. I understand that this is their perogative, but I'm thinking of DOJ's secret, federal preemption attack of Oregon's Death with Dignity Act back in 2001, where Ashcroft unilaterally issued a short statement declaring that Oregon's state statute was no longer operative. Ashcroft lost handily on the merits and just yesterday DOJ let the deadline for certioari to the Supremes pass without filing. This annoys the hell out of me. To me, this demonstrates that the DOJ never intended to win this case, but that Ashcroft sent one of his "professional" staffers to defend his indefensible actions. This was a PR stunt for social conservatives. This fits the pattern. They pander to their base, but never quite manage to come through for them.

Posted by: fnook | Nov 10, 2004 11:03:06 AM

"has attracted reflects a kind of liberal prejudice against his religious beliefs"

The more I think about this, the less I like it. I have no more or less understanding and prejudice against Midwestern Pentecostalism than I have against long-haired black-dressed New Yorkers with little boxes on their foreheads.

We have so much idiosyncracy in America we feel uncomfortable wthout it.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Nov 10, 2004 11:04:26 AM

Remember Tommy Chong!

Posted by: Tbag | Nov 10, 2004 11:07:04 AM

It also should be noted that Ashcroft lied to Congress during his confirmation hearings, saying that his opposition to Hormel as ambassador to Luxembourg (I think) had nothing to do with his sexual orientation. Simply a clear lie, and at the exact same time I was hearning from my Federalist society friends in law school, "Say what you want about Ashcroft, but he's a man of unquestioned integrity." Off topic, this particlar person who made that quote is now a clerk for a justice of the Supreme Court. And they say the Federalist Society doesn't have any real pull. anyway...

Posted by: Goldberg | Nov 10, 2004 11:20:23 AM

You missed at least one point worth mentioning: A compentent Justice Department should have, by this point, figured out the perpetrator of the 2001 anthrax attacks.

And how long did it take to find the unabomber under previously "compentent" justice departments?

Posted by: j.scott barnard | Nov 10, 2004 11:29:33 AM

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