What kind of man is John Ashcroft?

Thomas Sowell

1/19/2001 12:00:00 AM - Thomas Sowell

WITH SO MUCH controversy swirling around the nomination of former Senator John Ashcroft to be attorney general, we need to look beyond the rhetoric and the spin to the actual history of Ashcroft -- and of his critics.

When John Ashcroft was in the Senate, he voted to confirm more than 90 percent of all the black judges nominated by Bill Clinton. When he was governor of Missouri, Ashcroft appointed more black judges than any governor in that state before him. In 1991 he was commended for this by black members of the state bar.

Yet today Senator Ashcroft is being depicted as a "racist" because he voted against confirmation of a liberal black judge whose legal opinion in favor of a multiple murderer outraged Ashcroft and law enforcement officials, among others.

But facts simply do not matter to the well-practiced character assassins on the Senate Judiciary Committee, led by Ted Kennedy and Patrick Leahy. These are the people who inaugurated a new era in smear tactics when they demonized Judge Robert Bork with reckless innuendoes and patently false charges.

Before he became a judge, Robert Bork filed numerous briefs supporting the NAACP in civil rights cases. As a judge, he never voted against the civil rights of minorities. Yet Ted Kennedy, the hero of Chappaquiddick, waxed almost biblical in his moralistic oratory as he depicted Bork as a supporter of a segregated America.

Senator Leahy depicted Bork as a lawyer for corporate America who would not understand ordinary folk, even though Bork's career was primarily that of an educator and a government official. His brief career as a corporate attorney was due to his need to earn enough money to provide the best care for his dying wife. But Leahy of course left that out.

These character assassins operated on the old Hitler-Goebbels theory that the people will believe any lie if it is big enough and told often enough, loud enough. These were just a couple of the many lies used to defeat the Bork nomination, leaving the verb "to Bork" as a new addition to the English language. Now they are trying to Bork John Ashcroft.

What kind of man is John Ashcroft? His behavior in last fall's election tells us a lot. And it was a sharp and welcome contrast to that of Al Gore. Senator Ashcroft lost his bid for re-election but his opponent died. Since a dead man cannot be elected, Ashcroft could have kept his seat in the Senate, giving the Republicans a majority there. But instead he stepped aside, so that his opponent's widow could be appointed in his place.

That's class. That's integrity. People familiar with his career give Ashcroft high marks in such things, even when they disagree with his conservative politics. Nowhere are integrity and conscience needed more than in the post of attorney general, to which he has been nominated. It is especially needed now, after the corrupt way the Justice Department has been used throughout the Clinton administration.

Shrill objections to John Ashcroft are essentially pay-offs to two liberal constituencies. Pro-abortion forces do not like the fact that Senator Ashcroft is pro-life, so he is being trashed in order to appease them. Then the frustrated black liberal establishment needs someone thrown to them as a sacrificial victim, to validate their power and to keep alive in other blacks the sense of paranoia and resentment on which the leaders' careers depend.

There are people on both sides of the abortion issue who seem to judge everyone according to that one issue, even when these are candidates for elective or appointed posts that do not deal with abortion. The cabinet nominees of president-elect Bush include people on both sides of that particular issue, but the pro-abortion forces need to keep paranoia alive among their constituency as much as the black caucus or the increasingly irrelevant civil rights organizations do.

Delegitimizing those who are to occupy high places in government is not just a loss inflicted on those particular individuals. It undermines public confidence in government itself and thereby reduces the effectiveness with which government can do its job.

You cannot expect to get top quality people in government if that means becoming a target for campaigns of systematic lies and slander. There will of course always be warm bodies available to fill government positions. But there are already too many government positions filled by people who are just warm bodies.