Two weeks before Election Day, Gov. Mel Carnahan's private plane, in which his son and a pilot were also traveling, went down killing all three. For the Carnahan family, particularly Jean Carnahan, it was a blinding tragedy. For Sen. John Ashcroft, Carnahan's opponent in a tight Senate race, it was a most unwelcome shock. Though many observers thought Ashcroft was on his way to a narrow victory, he didn't want to win this way.
Out of respect or perhaps because he thought it was good politics (but either way it was proper), Ashcroft suspended his campaign for a full week, pulling television ads and canceling appearances. Meanwhile, as is only natural, the news became filled with encomia to the late governor. Carnahan's death had come so close to Election Day that there was no realistic way, even after he resumed the race with a week to go, for Ashcroft to campaign effectively without seeming insensitive.
On Election Day, there were "irregularities" in Missouri, as in other states. A judge had permitted the polls to remain open late in a heavily Democratic section of St. Louis. But beyond that, by a narrow margin, the voters had elected a dead man -- a clear violation of the Constitution (Article I, Section III).
Still, though the state Republican Party was prepared to file lawsuits challenging the legality of the result, Ashcroft pulled the plug with an exceptionally gracious concession. "I will not initiate and I will not participate in any legal challenge," he said. "I believe that the will of the people has been expressed with compassion, and that the people's voice should be respected and heard. I hope that the outcome of this election is a matter of comfort to Mrs. Carnahan. ... I hope that she has every success in representing the people of Missouri effectively."
Well, that and 50 cents will buy you a cup of coffee in Washington. The minute President-elect Bush named Ashcroft for the Justice Department, his generosity of spirit was swiftly dropped down the memory hole. Now, instead, he was an "extremist" (Jack White, Time Magazine) and "troubling" (Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.). The Wall Street Journal reports that the same coalition that got together to ambush Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas is plotting to take Ashcroft down.
Sen. Joseph Biden and other pro-abortion extremists (see how it feels to be labeled?) are wondering aloud whether Ashcroft, who opposes abortion, will enforce laws protecting abortion providers from harassment and murder. Why did we never hear speculation about whether Janet Reno would adequately protect the free speech rights of abortion opponents? (Actually, she didn't.)
But the biggest gun in the anti-Ashcroft arsenal is -- surprise! -- the race card. In the coming days we will hear that Ashcroft accepted an honorary degree from Bob Jones University and gave an interview to some magazine with romantic notions about the Old Confederacy, but that's all just noise. The real issue will be Ashcroft's successful attempt to block the nomination of Ronnie White, a black Missouri Supreme Court justice, to the federal bench.
Now a fair reading of the White controversy could yield the conclusion that Ashcroft was playing politics, i.e. seeking political advantage over the anti-death penalty Carnahan when he decided to make an issue of White's nomination. (White had voted to overturn the conviction of a serial murderer of police officers, but he had voted to uphold the death penalty in 41 of 59 cases.) But that is not what the Democrats and associated interest groups will argue. Instead, they will go nuclear, as they always do when engaged in political battles, and accuse Ashcroft not of bad faith in that instance, but of deep corruption and racism.
Ashcroft's defenders will be forced to cite his signing of the Martin Luther King holiday into law, his key support in keeping afloat Lincoln University (founded by former slaves), his record of approving 90 percent of the judicial nominees that came before the Senate for confirmation and so on.
But this is becoming a degrading ritual. Ashcroft is no racist. Bush is no racist. Bork is no racist. Thomas is no racist. And there must some price paid by those who wield the accusation maliciously.