Chatterbox: Save Your Lies for the Senate
Linda Chavez lies about her Guatemalan "house guest" and the Bush team hangs its nominee for labor secretary out to dry. John Ashcroft lies about why he opposed the nomination of James Hormel, a homosexual, as ambassador to the vitally strategic nation of Luxembourg, and the Bush team circles the wagons around its nominee for attorney general. At first glance, this may look like inconsistency, but in fact there's a clear, if unspoken, standard for appointees: It's OK to lie to the Senate, but not OK to lie to your prospective boss at the White House.
Ashcroft's obviously false protestations that he does not discriminate against gays are spotlighted today in an excellent Washington Post op-ed by Charles Kaiser. (This week's Slate Breakfast Tabler Frank Rich also passed along an interesting conversation he had with James Hormel about Ashcroft in his Jan. 20 New York Times column.) Close readers of this column know that Chatterbox doesn't find the allegation that Ashcroft is a racist terribly persuasive. It's Chatterbox's position that the Senate is free to rule Ashcroft out simply for being too conservative, just as it ruled out Ted Sorensen for CIA director back in 1977 for being too liberal. (Sorensen's nomination never came to a vote, but he pulled out largely in response to opposition from Senate conservatives, most of them Republican.) But the case that Ashcroft is anti-gay is much easier to make. You can call Ashcroft's stance a belief rooted in his faith, or you can call it a prejudice—Chatterbox prefers the latter—but either way, Ashcroft should consent to have that stance looked at as the Senate considers whether he's fit to run the Justice Department. Instead, he's lying about it.
Here is the first of two relevant exchanges from Ashcroft's confirmation hearing:
Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt.: Did you block his nomination from coming to a vote because he is gay?
Ashcroft: I did not. And I will enforce the law equally without regard to sexual orientation if appointed and confirmed as attorney general. Let me just address these issues a little bit since they've been raised.
Leahy: Why did you refuse—why did you vote against him? And why were you involved in an effort to block his nomination from ever coming to a vote?
Ashcroft: Well, frankly, I had known Mr. Hormel for a long time. He had recruited me, when I was a student in college, to go to the University of Chicago Law School.
[Chatterbox interjects: Hormel told Rich he doesn't recall recruiting Ashcroft, but we'll let that pass.]
Leahy: He was your dean, was he not?
Ashcroft: At the University of Chicago, he was an assistant dean at the law school who, I believe, had focused his efforts on admissions process and things like that. … But I did know him. I made a judgment that it would be ill-advised to make him ambassador based on the totality of the record. I did not believe that he would effectively represent the United States in that particular post.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.