Full disclosure: My wife was formerly a senior aide and speechwriter for both Ashcroft and Gonzales, so I always took a keen interest in both attorneys general. It's nice to see conventional wisdom come around to my long-standing and oft-stated view that Gonzales is a subpar hack and Ashcroft a man of integrity. Don't get me wrong: I wouldn't want to have a beer with either of them (certainly not with Ashcroft because I hate to drink alone). But, as my wife, Jessica Gavora, puts it, "The one thing you always knew about John Ashcroft was that he's not for sale."
Of course, Ashcroft's rehab is a byproduct of partisan opportunism. Gonzales is trailing blood in shark-infested political waters, and by telling this story, Comey has thrown the flailing attorney general an anchor instead of a life preserver.
Still, there are some interesting lessons here. First, the attacks on Ashcroft were always grotesquely unfair. As a presidential candidate, Howard Dean - who often decries how Republicans question the patriotism of Democrats - saw nothing wrong with flatly asserting that Ashcroft was "not a patriot. He's a direct descendant of Joseph McCarthy." A second lesson is that the Christian scare that has been spooking liberals often amounts to mass paranoia. In 2001, USA Today's former Supreme Court reporter asked, sincerely, "Can a deeply religious person be attorney general?" The bigotry of the question should be self-evident, and the answer equally obvious. In almost every way, Ashcroft was the Bush administration's most exemplary Cabinet official. An undisputed hawk on the war on terror, he was nonetheless immune to the groupthink that has plagued the Bush White House. From the sound of it, that independence improved administration policymaking.
It also improved Bush politically. In his first term, Ashcroft was the face of the Christian right in the Bush administration, serving as a valuable lightning rod, making Bush seem, and perhaps be, more reasonable. In his second term, Bush picked Gonzales, a quintessential yes man, to replace Ashcroft's useful contrary voice. This only reinforced the bunker mentality that has so ill-served the White House.
Lastly, history - even freshly minted history - has a remarkable way of erasing conventional wisdom. If in 2002 I had written that by 2007 Democrats would be singing Ashcroft's praises as a man of integrity and sound temperament, I would have been laughed out of the room. Right now, predicting a rehabilitation of George W. Bush elicits similar guffaws from the same crowd. But the fact is, if Ashcroft can be rehabilitated, anyone can be.