Flash point in the cultural wars

Too strict, too faithful

Support: Why submit Ashcroft, an honorable, decent and experienced public servant to a televised flogging in the Senate?

January 07, 2001|By Theodore B. Olson

ALL THE EARLY SIGNS point to a nasty senatorial confirmation process for President-elect George W. Bush's nominee for attorney general, former Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri. The same individuals, groups and alliances that defeated Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork in 1987 launched angry denunciations and expressions of dark concern when the Ashcroft nomination was announced.

Pundits who regularly despair over what they uniformly describe as the "politics of personal destruction," have been seen on Sunday television interview shows salivating over the prospect of the first bloodletting of the new presidency. What, one might ask, has Ashcroft done to deserve this peculiarly American honor?

Presidents are customarily given great latitude in selecting members of their cabinets, and the Senate historically accords special deference to nominees from its own inner circle. Moreover, this is one senator who seems to have manifested none of the personal weaknesses that helped defeat former Sen. John Tower, former President George Bush's choice for secretary of defense, in 1989. Tower is the only Cabinet nominee to be rejected by the Senate in recent memory.

The nation's chief law enforcement official should be a person of integrity and principle, one who will enforce the law fairly and impartially and who will be sufficiently strong and independent-minded to ensure that those who serve in the administration respect the Constitution and the rule of law and conduct themselves according to the highest ethical standards. By those criteria, Ashcroft is a superb choice.

After receiving degrees from Yale and the University of Chicago Law School, he served for eight years as Missouri's attorney general, followed by eight years as governor. The second time he ran for governor, he received a higher percentage of votes than any candidate for governor of Missouri since the Civil War. For the past six years, he has been a United States senator.

Ashcroft's integrity, convictions and commitment to principle also appear to be beyond question. The son of a Pentecostal preacher, he is a deeply religious person who cherishes a strong family.

Actions are stronger than words, of course, and last month, Ashcroft demonstrated his depth of character and leadership in the most personal and difficult crucible for a public figure. When he received slightly fewer votes for re-election to the Senate than his opponent, who had perished in an airplane crash shortly before the election, Ashcroft immediately and graciously conceded rather than mount what many regarded as a meritorious legal challenge. As a result, the wife of his deceased opponent will assume the seat in the Senate last week.

So why submit this honorable, decent and experienced public servant to a televised flogging in the Senate before he is allowed to become our attorney general?

Because, it seems, he is too conservative. His lifelong opposition to abortion, his support of the death penalty and his opposition to racial preferences have been singled out for particular castigation. But he will serve a president who expressed similar policies during the election, and the president surely is entitled to select subordinates who, in his judgment, will best help fulfill his policies.

The complaint that seems to underlie much of the campaign against Ashcroft is that he is just too religious, and that his religious convictions will cause him not to support the rights and liberties of people who hold different views.

But there is absolutely no evidence in a long and distinguished public career that Ashcroft will fail to uphold our nation's Constitution and laws faithfully and conscientiously. Nor is there any historic or constitutional justification for opposing a Cabinet nominee on the basis of deeply felt religious convictions -- convictions shared by millions of Americans.

Just a short while ago, Vice President Al Gore was widely applauded for selecting as a running mate Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, an outspoken and deeply committed Orthodox Jew. The same groups that threaten to oppose Ashcroft because he harbors strong religious views, and may be perceived as more conservative than the president he will serve, did not oppose Lieberman, who could easily have been described in the same terms. The difference, of course, is that Lieberman is a liberal and Ashcroft is a conservative.

The groups opposing Ashcroft have acknowledged that they are unlikely to defeat him. They do, however, hope to energize their political base and mobilize core constituencies for future political battles, such as an anticipated Supreme Court nomination.

It seems a shame that they will attempt to tarnish an outstanding senator and prospective attorney general to accomplish these objectives -- and will in the process perpetuate the politics of personal destruction that they pretend to deplore.

Theodore B. Olson, an attorney specializing in constitutional law, argued on behalf of President-elect George W. Bush before the U.S. Supreme Court.

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