WASHINGTON -- John Ashcroft, a lion of the right as a U.S. senator, has sounded more like a lamb of the center as attorney general. What he actually is will be revealed in his answers to difficult questions.
Will he name to the key post of U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia a tough prosecutor who fits FBI specifications, ignoring pleas by local Democratic politicians? How long will he retain Bill Clinton's selection as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, a position second in importance only to the D.C. post? How much will he clean house at the Justice Department, transferring career lawyers who collaborated closely with the Clinton White House?
That these questions can be asked about a Republican attorney general with impeccable conservative credentials is extraordinary. But Ashcroft bears wounds of a brutal confirmation fight intended less to defeat him than to modify his performance in office.
Ashcroft is the victim of delay caused by the Florida recount and his own lengthy confirmation process. When I asked him this week whether his ordeal inhibits him as attorney general, he replied: "No, the president called on me to restore the Justice Department and do it with the sense of integrity and humility that he wanted." Attacks on him, he said, "motivate me to do a very good job."
Still, he was not the old Ashcroft on NBC's "Meet the Press" March 11, when a frustrated Tim Russert failed to elicit opinions from the formerly opinionated senator. He provided a passable imitation of Janet Reno: "Before I would comment on any specific law, I'd have to see the law." "We'll have to make a decision on that at the time." "I don't want to comment on specific cases." "I don't know."
To conservatives, it seemed Ashcroft was joining moderates and dead skunks that he once said occupied the middle of the road. After Ashcroft declined to be honored in person at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Ashland (Ohio) University students managed to meet with him to present the award. One student expressed satisfaction over helping him win the bitterly partisan confirmation fight. "I am honored to be the attorney general," Ashcroft replied coldly, giving the youths the impression he was uncomfortable with ideologically radioactive activists.
While Ashcroft understandably chooses not to be an overtly political attorney general, conservative lawyers fear that he may flinch from Justice Department housecleaning. The delay in getting started kept Clinton stalwarts in place temporarily, including Wilma Lewis as U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.
Lewis, a career government lawyer, was named by President Clinton at the urging of the District's Democratic House delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton. Not surprisingly, Lewis proved more interested in local cases than in national security prosecutions normally handled by her office.
The FBI transferred to other jurisdictions such issues as the Middle East embassy bombings, the USS Cole sabotage and, most recently, the Hanssen spy case. FBI Director Louis Freeh had tried to move investigation of the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia out of Lewis's jurisdiction, but Attorney General Reno refused. With Reno gone and Lewis leaving April 10, what will happen to the case is unclear.
But Delegate Norton, Mayor Anthony Williams and other local politicians press for a D.C. prosecutor specializing in local issues -- another Wilma Lewis. Ashcroft's decision will be crucial.
The attorney general has already decided that another Clinton-appointed prosecutor, Mary Jo White, will remain "indefinitely" in New York following her remarkable post-election performance. She suddenly revived a dormant investigation of the 1996 Democratic-Teamster campaign scandal and initiated a probe of Clinton's late pardons. Based on White's eight-year record, conservatives consider it absurd to keep her.
Justice Department lawyers who suppressed investigation of the Clinton-Gore campaign financing, headed by Lee Radek, are still on the job. The test is how long they will be there once the Senate finally confirms such stellar Ashcroft selections as Larry Thompson, former U.S. attorney in Atlanta, as deputy attorney general, and Michael Chertoff, who was chief counsel of the Senate Whitewater inquiry, as head of Justice's Criminal Division. No Bush Cabinet member has a more important assignment than the battered John Ashcroft.
To find out more about Robert D. Novak and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.
COPYRIGHT 2001 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.