Man of The Law
Whether losing gracefully in Missouri, facing down liberals in the Senate, or taking on terrorism, Attorney General John Ashcroft-WORLD's 2001 Daniel of the Year-has an internal moral compass that gives him a boldness other politicians lack.
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in Washington-In a political career filled with extraordinary ups and downs, John Ashcroft had already, in his own words, been crucified and resurrected-more than once. But until last January, he'd never been through the lions' den. That all changed when president-elect George W. Bush nominated the former Missouri senator as attorney general, typically one of the highest-powered, highest-profile Cabinet positions in any administration. While liberals everywhere could merely gnash their teeth, the lions of the Senate bared their fangs, tearing into their former colleague with a ferocity not seen since the Clarence Thomas hearings. Mr. Ashcroft survived the mauling, but 42 "nay" votes were considered an embarrassment in the notoriously chummy Senate. The liberals licked their chops with some satisfaction: A diminished and humiliated Mr. Ashcroft would be one of the weakest attorneys general in recent memory, they predicted. Then came Sept. 11. Even as American confidence collapsed alongside the World Trade Center, Mr. Ashcroft rose to the occasion. Assuming a broad array of emergency powers, he ordered a nationwide sweep that detained hundreds of potential terrorists and suspected accomplices. Day by day, no news looked like good news. No more hijackings. No crop dusters with smallpox or tanker trucks with hazardous chemicals. No bombings or assassinations. Even an anthrax scare was contained before it reached panic levels. Slowly but surely the nation began to breathe again. Osama bin Laden's predictions of further attacks seemed, for the moment, to be foiled by the swift action of the Ashcroft Justice Department. But so too were liberals' predictions of a weak attorney general. In a time of crisis, Mr. Ashcroft moved front- and-center in the Bush administration, calming the fears of millions of Americans through his decisiveness, courage, and administrative skills. That's what the polls suggest. Despite a new wave of Democratic sniping, Mr. Ashcroft continues to enjoy approval ratings of more than 70 percent. When he was hauled before the Senate last week to defend some of his more controversial measures, it was a new John Ashcroft who faced his critics-more confident, more powerful, more sure of his convictions. The liberals whimpered rather than roared. Mr. Ashcroft had already faced these lions, and bested them. Just over a year ago, Mr. Ashcroft would have been sitting elbow-to-elbow with his Senate critics, rather than facing them from the witness chair. After toying with a run for the White House, he'd decided to stay put in the Senate, where he had served a single term. His opponent, Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, mounted a spirited campaign, but the awesome power of incumbency made it an uphill fight for the Democrat. Then, only three weeks before voters headed to the polls, the governor's plane crashed in a violent thunderstorm, killing all aboard. Missouri Democrats reeled: Lacking the time to remove Mr. Carnahan's name from the ballot, they had one last chance to unseat Mr. Ashcroft. After several days of silence, Jean Carnahan, the governor's visibly shaken widow, went before the cameras to announce that if a majority of Missourians voted for her late husband, she would go to Washington in his place. It was an unprecedented-and legally questionable-maneuver, but it worked. In an election filled with emotion, confusion, and possible widespread fraud in St. Louis, Missouri elected a dead man to the Senate. Rich McClure, Mr. Ashcroft's former chief of staff, was with his old boss until 3 a.m. on election night. All through the evening, the phone calls came in from national Republican leaders, urging Mr. Ashcroft to mount a legal challenge to the highly unorthodox election. "I know John pretty well," Mr. McClure says. "I can tell what he's thinking by the way he holds his head." So when he headed back to the war room after a few hours' sleep to help Mr. Ashcroft draft his statement for the media, "I fully expected John to want a statement that kept his options open for a legal challenge to the election. He was under enormous pressure from national political leaders to try to hold the Senate seat. Instead, he firmly and decisively put an end to Missouri's grieving process." "I hope that the outcome of this election is a matter of comfort to Mrs. Carnahan," said a haggard-looking Mr. Ashcroft when he finally faced the TV cameras. "And I hope that we can all accord her the opportunity to have the kind of necessary recovery time after such a great personal loss. "I think as public officials we have the opportunity to model values for our culture-responsibility, dignity, decency, integrity, and respect. And if we can only model those when it's politically expedient to do so, we've never modeled the values, we've only modeled political expediency." Some Missouri Republicans criticized Mr. Ashcroft for "giving away" a seat that wasn't his to give away. But those who know him scoff at the idea that stepping aside was the easy thing to do. In his weekly basketball games against Secretary of Education Rod Paige and other Washington luminaries, Mr. Ashcroft is known for throwing elbows and talking trash. Competition is his nature, friends say, not concession. "John showed tremendous integrity and sensitivity to the people of Missouri and his grieving opponent during a time when he himself was smarting from defeat," says Mr. McClure. "It was the biblical principle of putting others before self. It was truly grace exhibited under pressure." Losing gracefully was something he'd had to practice many times before. Ever since his first, unsuccessful congressional campaign at the age of 30, John Ashcroft had experienced almost as many setbacks as he had successes. He credits his father-a minister, college professor, and leader of the Assemblies of God denomination-with helping him make sense of it all. "Here is what my father taught me," Mr. Ashcroft says in his memoirs, On My Honor. "Through the ups and downs of failure and success, we become better people, and as better people, God can call us to bigger jobs." Still, what "bigger jobs" were there likely to be for a defeated incumbent senator? With George W. Bush looking like a certain winner against Al Gore, party activists started thinking about Cabinet appointments. Carl Herbster, president of the American Association of Christian Schools and a longtime friend of Mr. Ashcroft, asked the lame duck senator what role he might want in a Bush administration. "If I were to say which one was of most interest to me, it would be attorney general," is how Mr. Herbster remembers the reply. He'd almost landed the job once before, when the earlier President Bush was searching for an attorney general replacement near the end of his first term. (The president's phone call, ironically enough, interrupted the morning Bible study that Mr. Ashcroft, then governor of Missouri, conducted in his office each day.) When the nomination finally happened almost a decade later, it touched off a political firestorm. From abortion to guns to racial preferences, Mr. Ashcroft was on the wrong side of every issue dear to liberal judicial activists. Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way, said the choice of Mr. Ashcroft was "an astonishingly bad nomination," thanks to "an abysmal record on civil rights and civil liberties." Meanwhile, Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State called the nomination "a disaster for anyone who cares about maintaining constitutional principles." Similar views echoed through the Senate chamber, where Mr. Ashcroft had for six years enjoyed cordial relations with even his staunchest political opponents. Friends say he was hurt by the charges being flung at him. "I saw him much less at peace about that situation than he was after losing the Senate election," says Mr. Herbster. "These were colleagues coming out against him. Even the lady that he was so gracious to and burdened for, Sen. Carnahan, voted against him. It was baffling to him." Was that the low point in a famously up-and-down career? Were the confirmation hearings more painful than the loss of his Senate seat? In his sprawling fifth-floor office, Mr. Ashcroft leans back in a chair and scowls deeply, as if the question itself is somehow offensive. Fully 30 seconds go by before he answers. "I don't think it's particularly devastating to defend your beliefs and your sense of values," he says at last. "I know that the [confirmation] hearing was an attack on a number of controversial items, and what they perceived my position to be. But defending what I believe in was not what I would call a low point or a tough point. "Of course it's difficult for a person whose ego is healthy enough to put him in the Senate to lose an election. And to lose an election to a deceased opponent doesn't make it any easier," he deadpans. "But Sept. 11 was far more difficult than anything else. Real people died. We had the blood of thousands of Americans, innocent citizens who were absolutely ambushed and families so distressed. We had [Solicitor General] Ted Olson whose wife and he shared the last moments in a poignant, tragic exchange that makes everything else seem frivolous.... I think it puts into perspective what real difficulty is, as compared to some of the things we sometimes rate in Washington as tough times." The answer might sound canned or calculated, but even Mr. Ashcroft's decorating sense seems to back him up. His elegant, Art Deco office is almost completely devoid of grip-and-grin photos with famous politicians-Washington's idea of good interior design. Instead, a smiling Barbara Olson looks down from the wall above Mr. Ashcroft's desk. The photo was a gift from her husband, Ted, who shared an agonizing phone call with his wife as her plane crashed into the Pentagon. To the Attorney General, the picture serves as a constant reminder of what is at stake. For most Americans, terrorism became a personal threat on Sept. 11; for Mr. Ashcroft, it became a personal responsibility. He knows that his decisions can literally mean the difference between life and death for thousands of people. Failure to follow up on a clue could mean another hijacking. Failure to detain the right suspect could bring another building crashing to the ground. Failure, with so much on the line, is not an option. Still, don't ask Mr. Ashcroft how he handles the pressure or how he manages to sleep at night. He's famously reserved, even stoic. The heavy black bags under his eyes may speak volumes, but his lips are pretty well sealed. "I take it very personally," he says of the pressure. "I don't think it's my exclusive responsibility to prevent terrorism, but it is a personal responsibility." And then, as if he's come dangerously close to baring his soul, he veers in the other direction, talking about ways that every American can be on guard against terrorist threats. A more modern, touchy-feely politician would play the pressure of the job like a trump card, earning sympathy in media interviews and Senate hearings. But feelings are a tricky thing for Mr. Ashcroft, whose Christian worldview is based on transcendent truths rather than personal experience or temporal expedience. Again and again he appeals to "The Law" as something external and fixed. (Even when he's speaking, the capital letters are evident in his voice.) To liberals, who see all law as a human creation always subject to revision, Mr. Ashcroft's views make him at best naïve-and at worst dangerous. But even critics have to agree that the attorney general's internal moral compass gives him a boldness and determination that other politicians lack. When Mr. Ashcroft is certain of the rightness of his cause, he has little use for those in the wrong. "To those who pit Americans against immigrants and citizens against noncitizens, to those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve," he told his Senate inquisitors on Dec. 6. "They give ammunition to America's enemies, and pause to America's friends." The speech was a blistering rebuke aimed at liberals who would value the civil liberties of a few above the safety of many. Democrats bristled and editorial writers were aghast, but Mr. Ashcroft remained unmoved. "Everything that I've done in my life, in some measure, has prepared me for what I'm doing right now," he told WORLD. "Each of us comes to the table with a set of life experiences that have prepared us-to the extent that we're prepared at all. The question is, How well have they prepared us? I guess the verdict will probably be written sometime in the future when our lives are assessed." And what does he think the verdict will be? Once again, the question seems too personal, and he demurs: "You know, they may say that I'm a general around here, but really I'm a soldier. The leader is the commander in chief, and the verdict belongs to him. I hope and pray and work to the end that the verdict would be this: That America stood up to terrorism in favor of people making choices in freedom."
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