WASHINGTON -- The coolly crafted character assassination of John Ashcroft by the left-wing coalition attacking his nomination as attorney general has gone largely unanswered by passive Republican senators who are supposed to defend him. This has resulted in open season on a distinguished public servant's reputation, with editorial writers and columnists piling on.
Unless there is a break in solid support for former Sen. Ashcroft from his erstwhile Republican colleagues, he will be confirmed. But the realistic Democratic goal is to inhibit both Ashcroft's performance at the Justice Department and President Bush's selection of federal judges. Repeatedly interrupted in mid-sentence by Democratic senators during the Judiciary Committee's confirmation hearings, Ashcroft could hardly defend himself. Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch was conciliatory rather than aggressive, and the committee's other Republicans generally have imitated his lead.
The assault on Ashcroft persists after the completion of hearings, last week beginning a new line of attack by insinuating homophobia. A health care official at Georgetown University named Paul Offner suddenly surfaced, claiming that then Missouri Gov. Ashcroft asked him about his sexual orientation to begin a 1985 job interview.
Two Ashcroft aides present at the meeting deny it. Furthermore, breathless reports about Offner's accusation omit his background as a generous Democratic contributor, a Democratic staffer, a member of the Clinton transition team and a member of Hillary Clinton's health care task force.
James Hormel, U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg, appeared last week to speculate that yes, Offner's story sounded right (though, of course, he had no way of knowing one way or another). But the diplomat's real purpose in Washington was to add credence to the calumny of Ashcroft as an anti-gay bigot who blocked Hormel's Senate confirmation because he is a homosexual.
Again, the news accounts omitted that Ashcroft was not alone and not even a leader in stopping Senate confirmation of Hormel, who finally took up his post in the overwhelmingly Catholic country on a recess appointment. Nor has it been mentioned that the Catholic League opposed Hormel "because of the nominee's refusal to disassociate himself from an anti-Catholic group."
The homophobic smear adds to the basic assault mapped out the first week of January in a secret meeting. Included were representatives of the National Organization for Women (NOW), the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the AFL-CIO, among other groups, plus aides of Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California (who at that point had not announced her opposition to Ashcroft). They determined that Ashcroft would be painted as a racist.
As planned, hearings concentrated on Ashcroft's Missouri role as state attorney general and later governor to thwart "desegregation." Ashcroft was stopped from giving a full explanation by interrupting Democratic senators. He was 12 years old when the Supreme Court ended legal segregation in Missouri. What happened in that state duplicated events elsewhere. White flight to the suburbs resegregated schools, and the solution of forced busing by activist judges proved unworkable.
The "voluntary desegregation" in St. Louis repeatedly referred to by Ashcroft's tormentors was in reality an effort to stave off judicial mandates by means of excessive state expenditures for schools. As state attorney general, Ashcroft was trying to stop a raid on the state treasury. So was Ashcroft's Democratic rival, then State Treasurer Mel Carnahan. This was played out in state after state during the nationwide forced busing fiasco.
The heart of the anti-Ashcroft campaign is his leadership in defeating Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White's Senate confirmation as a federal judge. In the hearings, Ashcroft was painted as defaming an African-American for political purposes.
But the unanimous Senate Republican vote against White becomes credible by careful reading of his 1998 dissent against capital punishment for a mass murderer, which he called "a very hard case." Furthermore, White's record of favoring lenient treatment for murderers is documented in subsequent cases, justifying Ashcroft's position.
When White made an unprecedented appearance before the Judiciary Committee seeking retribution against Ashcroft, Chairman Hatch was effusive in praising the judge's rise from poverty and negligent in defending the nominee. Like Robert Bork, John Tower and other unfortunates, John Ashcroft is confronting at first hand the ferocity of Democrats and the passivity of Republicans.