Be wary about the self-makeover of John Ashcroft

January 19, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- At one point during John Ashcroft's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is weighing his nomination to be attorney general, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California wondered whether her eyes and ears were deceiving her.

"I see a kind of metamorphosis going on, a mutation, if you will," she said. "Quite frankly, I don't know what to believe."

The cause of her bafflement was the phenomenon of the former Missouri senator, perhaps the most adamantly outspoken foe of abortion rights and limitations on gun ownership when he was her Senate colleague, proclaiming himself to be rolling over in acceptance of both.

Mr. Ashcroft, asked whether as attorney general he would try to overturn the constitutional guarantee of abortion rights in Roe vs. Wade, repeatedly declared that the case was now "settled law." He would not presume to antagonize the court by raising the issue again, he said. It would put his solicitor general on the spot to do so.

As for his past opposition to a ban on assault weapons, Mr. Ashcroft said he not only wouldn't try to extract this thorn in the side of his friends at the National Rifle Association, but he would support the ban's extension when it came up again.

All this, the uncharacteristically docile Mr. Ashcroft said, was because he understood that having left the Senate (by choice of Missouri's voters) and on the verge of joining the Bush administration, he would be shifting from an "enactment-oriented role" to a "law-oriented role." That is, it was no longer his job to write laws; his new task would be simply to see that the laws on the books were enforced.

More than a metamorphosis or a mutation, as Ms. Feinstein suggested, Mr. Ashcroft was indicating it would be more of a neutering. His true beliefs and feelings would be removed by a sort of mental self-surgery and set aside as long as he sat in the top office of the Justice Department. Mr. Ashcroft professed that even when President Bush might ask his advice, he would confine himself to telling him what the law and the Constitution said.

The Republican members of the committee, doing their best to grease the way for him, emphasized their party colleague's honesty and integrity. They repeatedly observed that if "John" said he would limit himself to enforcing the law -- "so help me God," as he put it at one point, raising his right hand -- that was good enough for them.

But the Democrats, and Sen. Ted Kennedy in particular, were not buying. Undeterred by rebukes of "unfairness" from GOP committee members, Mr. Kennedy hammered at Mr. Ashcroft's legal fights against desegregating St. Louis schools when he was Missouri's attorney general in the late 1970s. "I have always opposed segregation," Mr. Ashcroft nevertheless insisted.

In emphasizing that he would be "law-oriented" in his new job, Mr. Ashcroft conveyed his view of the president's chief law-enforcement officer as being a kind of legal automatic teller machine, dispensing counsel robot-like at the push of a button. He seemed to be suggesting that if Mr. Bush asked him about Roe vs. Wade, all he would say was, "Boss, it's the law." Democrats on the committee familiar with Mr. Ashcroft's stiff opposition to it, driven by his outspoken religious beliefs, obviously had a hard time swallowing that.

Mr. Ashcroft was trying to sell a narrow concept of an attorney general's function that it is hard to believe Mr. Bush himself would want. Presidents routinely look to all their Cabinet members for guidance, not only on what is needed but also on what will play politically in their fields of expertise.

Considering Mr. Bush's lack of experience in national affairs generally, you might expect that he will be leaning especially heavily on the advice of his Cabinet in all matters. That certainly is the impression left by his choice of so many experienced hands among his top appointments.

If Mr. Ashcroft is to be believed, Mr. Bush will be getting a chief law clerk at Justice, confined to looking up what the law says on any particular issue and keeping his mouth shut on how he thinks it ought to be. Clearly, the Democrats on the committee do not believe this.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau. His latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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