John Ashcroft, the conservative you hate to hate.

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
June 21 2002 10:58 AM

John Ashcroft

The man you hate to hate.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

After a man is smeared the way John Ashcroft was during his Senate confirmation hearings last year, the reflexive reaction is to defend him. No one, after all, could be quite the demon that liberals portrayed—a racist, gay-bashing prude intent on transforming the United States into a Christian theocracy. But there's one problem with this contrarian desire to defend the attorney general: Ashcroft keeps getting in the way of it.

Keeping score of the debate between Ashcroft and his most partisan critics is like watching the if-only-both-teams-could-lose World Series between the Yankees and the Mets a few years ago. Ashcroft brings out the worst in his enemies, who then shrilly denounce his every move. Take, for example, New York Times writer Anthony Lewis' farewell column, in which he wrote that "certainty is the enemy of decency and humanity in people who are sure they are right, like Osama bin Laden and John Ashcroft," blithely comparing the attorney general's beliefs to those of a man who murders thousands in the name of his god. It's hard to believe that venom like that stems from anything other than simple religious bigotry. Many liberals and libertarian-inclined conservatives subscribe to a "don't ask, don't tell" theory of religiosity that parallels what some conservative Christians say about homosexuality: "Hey, what he does in his home is his own business, but does he have to throw it in my face all the time?"

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What's pernicious about such attacks on Ashcroft is the way they use religion as shorthand for a particular spectrum of political belief. Ashcroft's denomination, the Assemblies of God, may be the largest Pentecostal denomination in America, but its practices are still alien even to most of the churchgoing public. That makes it easy to mock unfamiliar rituals, such as Ashcroft's decision to anoint himself with oil (following the practice of David and Saul) before his swearing-in as governor and senator. But Ashcroft's religious practices are no weirder than Joe Lieberman's, and Lieberman is routinely celebrated for his religious devotion.

And despite the protestations of his critics, Ashcroft is not a stereotypical Holy Roller. He has lived a very secular life, engaged with the world at large. He graduated from Yale and went to law school at the University of Chicago. He taught law at Southwest Missouri State and has been active in politics since he was 30. And while his religion has obviously informed his very conservative politics—particularly on abortion—he has dutifully carried out laws that contradict his personal beliefs. When he was Missouri's attorney general he wouldn't permit religious material to be distributed on public-school grounds, writing, "While the advance of religious beliefs is considered by me and I believe most people to be desirable, this office is compelled by the weight of the law to conclude that school boards may not allow the use of the public schools to assist in this effort." As Missouri governor, he executed the law to create a state-approved lottery even though he regards gambling as a sin. And as U.S. attorney general, he dispatched his No. 2 man, Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, to address a "We're here! We're career!" gay pride celebration for Justice Department employees this week.

The trouble is, Ashcroft sometimes lives up to his critics' caricature—making it hard to object too strenuously to the substance of their complaints, even if those complaints are sometimes unfairly or sloppily drawn. Earlier this month, the Justice Department announced that it had conducted a more than 13-month investigation of a New Orleans bordello. The fruit of the investigation: 12 prostitutes, for a crime that is normally considered a local matter. As George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley put it in the Los Angeles Times, "Only the FBI could go to the French Quarter and find just a dozen prostitutes after a year of investigation." In another instance, Ashcroft is trying to use federal drug laws to block Oregon's assisted-suicide law. And he has arrogantly refused to discuss reasonable concerns about wartime restrictions on civil liberties. (Last year, Jacob Weisberg evaluated six of the biggest.)

Ashcroft could have used his enemies' irrational vitriol to his advantage by rising above unfair attacks. But instead he waded in and threw a few sucker punches of his own. Most notoriously, he sat before the Senate Judiciary Committee and accused those who would be concerned about such trifles as the Constitution of giving succor to al-Qaida—"to those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies, and pause to America's friends."

That type of rhetoric brought back memories of another time Ashcroft spoke thuggishly on the Senate floor, accusing Ronnie White, the first black judge on the Missouri Supreme Court, of having a "tremendous bent toward criminal activity." Ashcroft is not a racist, but he has unabashedly used race to promote his political prospects and to slander his opponents, as he did Ronnie White. So when Ashcroft's opponents use his religion to slander him, it's hard to feel sorry for him.

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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