In Praise of John Ashcroft
This man will go down in history as one of the top Attorneys General we've ever had. The challenges he's faced in his tenure have been tremendous and unprecedented. He changed the mission of the Justice Department on the fly from prosecuting crimes already committed to preventing terrorist acts by nabbing the culprits before they could strike. He's weathered the howls of hatred and bigotry with grace and toughness. His shoes will be hard to fill.
In 2000 when he was running for re-election to the Senate and his opponent Mel Carnahan died in a plane crash three weeks prior to the election, Ashcroft graciously suspended all campaigning for a week and then finished with a muted campaign. It cost him his Senate seat as hard-core Democrats and sympathetic voters elected Carnahan with the full understanding that his widow Jean would be appointed to the job. Though there were grounds to challenge the election (including a situation where the polls in Democrat-heavy St. Louis were kept open longer than the rest of the state), Ashcroft did the classy thing and let it go, in part to spare Jean Carnahan. Al Gore should have showed such class.
He was then appointed Attorney General and headed to his confirmation hearings, where the legendary collegiality of the Senate swiftly disappeared in a vicious, personal character attack on the man from the Left (spearheaded by that viper Patrick Leahy). It was the beginning of the Left's apparent indignation at the President thinking he had the right to be conservative. Again, Ashcroft handled all the bilious unfair attacks with grace and class.
He has been unfairly mocked throughout his tenure. He was labeled a prude for the curtain in front of a semi-nude statue, although he didn't know about it (it was purchased by an aide as a cost-cutting move; see Jay Nordlinger.) He was reamed for asking that criticism be responsible instead of wild; for that he was called a new McCarthy. Liberals have screamed about his enforcement of the Patriot Act, even though his Justice Department only did what the Congress had authorized them to do. The Left howled about Ashcroft poring through library records when there wasn't a single instance of that clause being used. The source for all these wild claims seems to be nothing more profound or uplifting than sheer bigotry.
And what has he done under this withering storm of hatred? Simply transformed an often ineffectual agency into the domestic defense front that we've needed in this war on terror. He followed the Rudy Guiliani model for cleaning up crime and terror: hit 'em on the little stuff so they can't pull off the big stuff. We haven't had a terrorist attack on our soil in over three years--which NO ONE expected--and much of the credit must go to John Ashcroft.
A final note: John Ashcroft is the most important person I've ever met in person. My wife and I had taken our cousins to Silver Dollar City, a theme park in Branson, MO. They have tours of a cave there on the premises, and we were taking the last tour of the day. As our group began to file through the door, I noticed a man holding back with a couple of others. It was John Ashcroft. As the last people were filing through the door, I stepped forward and spoke to him briefly and shook his hand. I was surprised to find he wasn't much taller than me (and I'm quite short.) He was quiet and gracious but kept to himself, and I let him; he deserved a bit of quiet, ordinary hometown time where he could just enjoy himself like anyone else, I thought.
This was in August of 2001. I had no idea just how important this man would become. But he's come through with flying colors, and I admire and honor him for it.