Everything was OK until Ashcroft

January 02, 2001|By Tom Teepen

ATLANTA -- President-elect Bush was cruising along nicely there for a while as he nominated cabinet members, then -- pow! Right into the ditch.

The nomination of John Ashcroft as attorney general is at striking odds with the other nominations so far.

In the main, Mr. Bush has been naming centrist Republicans, conservative to be sure but essentially pragmatic. He seemed to be eschewing the bark-at-the-moon right-wingers whose shenanigans so embarrassed the early Reagan administration.

And he was crafting an administration that, pardon the Clintonism, looks like America -- with women and racial and ethnic minorities prominently involved. (When Mr. Clinton did that eight years ago, he was accused of pandering. Now, Mr. Bush is said to be reaching out. Progress.)

But the Ashcroft appointment troubles.

Former Missouri attorney general and governor and now lame-duck senator, Mr. Ashcroft has the resume for the job. He is hardworking and dead-on honest.

He is also, however, one of the paladins of the crusading religious right and trails a record of racial insensitivity that is hard to square with the progress toward racial justice represented by other Bush nominees.(Think of it: U.S. foreign policy, at the State Department and the National Security Council, will be in the charge of African-Americans. And this just 35 years after the difficult enactment of the Voting Rights Act.(Sometimes you win one.)

As state attorney general, Mr. Ashcroft fought the desegregation of St. Louis schools, and he rode his opposition to desegregation to the governorship.

Nor is evidence of Mr. Ashcroft's tin ear for the crucial issue of race all in the past.

In 1999 he accepted an honorary degree from the racist -- and incidentally anti-Catholic -- Bob Jones University. And he led the recent successful effort to keep President Clinton from naming Ronnie White, a black Missouri Supreme Court judge, to the federal judiciary.

Mr. Ashcroft's maneuverings against Mr. White were partly in the service of a larger GOP campaign to deny Mr. Clinton the judicial appointments to which he was constitutionally welcome, but there was a particularly demagogic edge to Mr. Ashcroft's railings against Mr. White.

The senator misrepresented the judge as soft on crime, an opponent of the death penalty, when in fact Mr. White voted to overturn capital convictions at a perfectly ordinary rate and was typically in the court's majority when he did so.

Given Mr. Ashcroft's history -- including gratuitous, fawning praise for Confederate leaders -- civil rights organizations reasonably suspected racial animus in his campaign against Mr. White.

To boot, Mr. Ashcroft is an anti-abortion absolutist and the Rev. Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition -- indeed, all right-wing scorekeepers -- give him a 100 rating.

There will be a lot of blustering against Mr. Ashcroft, but senatorial courtesy and kindness toward a new administration probably will favor him.

It is a dubious debut Mr. Bush sets for himself, however, with an attorney general who is as likely to use the office to conduct a reactionary crusade as to enforce the law.

Tom Teepen is a columnist for Cox Newspapers. His e-mail address is teepencolumn@coxnews.com.

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