Ashcroft's faith, persona inspire split sentiments

Attorney general draws on religion, upbringing to guide his political life

July 08, 2002|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - As Attorney General John Ashcroft stood before a camera live from Moscow last month to announce that U.S. officials had foiled a plot to explode a "dirty bomb" in the United States, he began what he thought was a rehearsal.

"We have captured a known terrorist," he began casually as MSNBC inadvertently beamed his image live to America. Then he loudly cleared his throat.

"Let's try that again," he said. An aide brushed off his shoulders. Another applied hair spray. MSNBC took the feed off the air but soon returned with the real announcement, which Ashcroft issued with his usual urgent, even ominous tone.

The mix-up offered a rare glimpse of Ashcroft in an unguarded moment. Since taking over as the nation's chief law enforcement officer, he has carefully cultivated the persona of a man consumed by a mission.

Since the attacks of Sept. 11, Ashcroft has become the most visible and most activist attorney general in decades. He has portrayed himself as the man who will punish anyone associated with the attacks and help shape policy to prevent other acts of terrorism. He has become the shield for some of the Bush administration's most-criticized policies and the voice through which even minor developments in the war on terror are announced.

His regular presence before TV cameras at the Justice Department earned him high ratings from the public in the spring and have helped him eclipse FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge as the nation's No. 1 terrorism fighter.

But those appearances have upset some who say he craves publicity and uses his lectern to infringe on Americans' civil liberties. They note that, among other things, he successfully pushed for looser domestic spying guidelines for the FBI and the indefinite detention of at least two U.S. citizens without criminal charges. His critics also point to the holding of hundreds of Middle Eastern men on minor immigration charges.

Still, for all his televised speeches and news conferences here and abroad, Ashcroft has remained an enigma.

He appears at times single-minded and unyielding, convinced that God has guided him to the forefront of American public life. And yet at other times he seems modest and lighthearted, a man who writes gospel music about eagles on his farm, plays the piano on the Late Show with David Letterman and takes tarantulas home to his wife as a joke.

Ralph Reed, a conservative strategist and former head of the Christian Coalition of America, says Ashcroft is driven by a "powerful personal faith" that has given him the unflinching support of religious conservatives for two decades and helped him ascend to some of the highest political offices.

"He really is at peace with who he is and his calling to public life," Reed said. "And the great message about his faith is that he has put his trust in a power greater than himself. It frees him up to do his job."

His detractors say he has felt a little too free to mix religion with service and to impose a deeply conservative ideology on the Justice Department's enforcement of laws.

Ashcroft barely slipped into office after contentious confirmation hearings in February 2001 in which 42 of 100 senators voted against him - the most ever to oppose a successful nominee for attorney general - based on concerns that his views on issues such as abortion would trump existing laws.

"He has bent the Constitution to fit his right-wing agenda and endangered the rights and freedoms of all Americans," said Ralph G. Neas, one of his chief critics, who heads People for the American Way, a liberal Washington advocacy group.

"You get the sense that Ashcroft relies on John Ashcroft and acts unilaterally," Neas said. "With such a narrow view of the world and his own ideology, he does not get the kind of advice that other attorneys general have gotten. It seems he forgets his role is as the nation's law enforcement officer."

Aggressive style

One of the distinct qualities of Ashcroft's tenure is his highly aggressive style, whereby he often charges after issues and asserts his department's opinion before it is sought. He has tried to stop Oregon from allowing assisted suicides and has ordered raids on medical marijuana distributors approved by voters in California.

Ashcroft has also used his position to advance causes that he valued as a senator. He sent a memo to state attorneys general, instructing them to coordinate cases involving gun possession through the Justice Department. In the memo, Ashcroft added that the correct interpretation of the Second Amendment is that it protects each citizen's right to own a gun.

Over the past year and a half he has also vigorously pursued the use of the death penalty in federal cases, overturning a dozen decisions by prosecutors who had chosen not to seek capital punishment.

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