Chatterbox: Save Your Lies for the Senate 

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Jan. 25 2001 3:00 AM

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.

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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.

Here is the second relevant exchange from the hearings:

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.: Along those lines, let me ask you another question. You were on the Foreign Relations Committee, and Jim Hormel, a person whom I happen to know very well—he comes from my city. I've known him for many, many years—was up for ambassador to Luxembourg.

You voted against him at the time, saying, "because he engaged in a gay lifestyle."

My question to you is, would someone be denied employment by you or not be selected by you for a top position in the Justice Department if they happen to employ a gay lifestyle?

Ashcroft: No, they would not be denied. I have never used sexual orientation as a matter of qualification or disqualification in my offices. I have had individuals whose situation became apparent to me, sometimes tragically, that worked for me, and I have not made that a criterion for employment or unemployment in my office and would not do so.

From the context, it sounds as though Feinstein is saying that she herself heard Ashcroft say he opposed Ashcroft "because he engaged in a gay lifestyle." Actually, that isn't quite right. According to a Feinstein spokesman, Feinstein got the quote from a 1998 story by Lawrence M. O'Rourke in the Sacramento Bee. Here's the passage:

Ashcroft told reporters that Hormel has "actively supported the gay lifestyle"and probably would continue to do so in his diplomatic post in Luxembourg.

As you can see, Feinstein mangled the quote slightly. According to O'Rourke's article, Ashcroft said he opposed Hormel not because he was gay, but because he promoted gayness (a charge Hormel denied, incidentally). But this distinction doesn't have much meaning. If Ashcroft believed Hormel promoted the "gay lifestyle," and that this made him unfit for public office, then Ashcroft can't truthfully claim that his opposition had nothing to do with Hormel's being gay. And he certainly can't claim that it was based on "the totality of the record."

Yes, yes, but did O'Rourke hear Ashcroft make the "because he engaged in a gay lifestyle" remark? Alas, he doesn't remember. But he did tell Chatterbox that it isn't his practice to lift quotations from the clips or anywhere else without verifying them with the source—in this case, Ashcroft.

[Update, 1/25: It seems that Ashcroft also lied when he testified that he has never screened employees for sexual orientation. Paul Offner, a former aide to Sen. Pat Moynihan on health care policy, told David Vise and Dan Eggen of the Washington Post that when then-Missouri Gov. Ashcroft interviewed him in 1985 for a job running Missouri's department of social services, Ashcroft asked, "Mr. Offner, do you have the same sexual preference as most men?" (He does, but he still didn't get the job.) Click here  to read the story.] 

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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