The perils of being John Ashcroft

William F. Buckley
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Posted: Jan 08, 2001 12:00 AM
The hearings in the matter of John Ashcroft for attorney general will be, indeed have already been, one more immersion in the recurrent pesthole of American politics, the liberal gang bang of choice conservative figures. They did it to Barry Goldwater, and succeeded; tried to do it to Ronald Reagan, but were overwhelmed. They did it to Clarence Thomas, failed formally (he sits on the Supreme Court), but gave rise to an ongoing national enterprise (Emily's List: Persecute anybody who voted to confirm Thomas).

The Wall Street Journal records that representatives have met to plot the defamation of Ashcroft. Among them, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the AFL-CIO, the National Organization for Women, the American Civil Liberties Union (which doesn't take official positions on appointments -- except in the case of Rober Bork), and, of course, People for the American Way, which is, we pause to remark, an un-American organization.

What would you rather be called, a racist or a liar? Ashcroft is called both -- and by people who think of themselves as fussy in the matter of defamation. Two columnists in The New York Times have opined using this language, one of them (Anthony Lewis) in as many words: Ashcroft is a liar.

Now the dictionary (American Heritage) qualifies you as a liar if you say something "meant to deceive or give a false impression." It could be said, under this definition that is at once latitudinarian and comprehensive, that every politician since Coriolanus is a liar. Yet the word remains uniquely savage. If John Ashcroft is a liar in the sense that, oh, FDR was a liar (he was going to balance the budget and keep us out of war), forget it and aim your resentment at the fouling of the language by such as Mr. Lewis. If, on the other hand, Mr. Ashcroft deserves to be called a liar, then send him not to the Justice Department, but packing, back to Missouri.

What concretely will they argue?

(1) That Ashcroft opposes abortion. (So did Mother Teresa.) From which it follows that (2) he will call to the favorable attention of President Bush candidates for judicial positions who are anti-abortion; and (3) cannot be relied upon to protect abortionists engaged in legal enterprises.

What this messy business tells us, yet again, is that the Supreme Court opened Pandora's box when it gave us Roe v. Wade, the germinal pro-abortion decision, back in 1973. Because that decision was so comprehensive and exploitable, the conjugation of it is never done. Does the mother of the pregnant teen-ager have any rights? The father? The fetus? If so, when?

These questions can't be made to disappear, and President-elect Bush is entitled to expect of his attorney general that in arguments before federal courts in which the implications of absolutely unregulated abortions are being examined, amicus curiae briefs from the government should defend such mediating legislation by state laws that aren't specifically prohibited by lapidary high-court decisions. To translate that into a putative resistance by Attorney General Ashcroft to enforcing the law and protecting the rights of abortion-bound women who have been violated by the men they slept with, is done only by persons whose objective is to punish Mr. Ashcroft not for what he would do as attorney general, but for his opinions. And what is the American Civil Liberties Union doing in this posse of lynchers?

On the question of racism, what else do the critics have against him, other than his vote (along with 53 other senators) against Ronnie White, who has the good fortune of being black; otherwise his rejection would never have been noticed? That he accepted an honorary degree from Bob Jones University?

That was a dumb thing to do, frankly. To speak under the auspices of Bob Jones is one thing (I spoke there in 1953); to accept a degree from it, in the light of its peculiar constitution, isn't seemly. But to have done so needs to be examined in context of a person's background and career. John Ashcroft served as attorney general, as governor and then as a senator from Missouri; and as the man who, noblesse oblige, declined to contest an election loss against a dead man, yielding gracefully to a posthumous vote of sympathy for the widow.

The major problem of the inquisitors is that they are talking to a group of men and women who knew John Ashcroft as a colleague, and who are not likely, even in pursuit of the good opinion of the People for the American Way, to reject a man they know as a non-liar and non-racist merely to satisfy ideological blood lust.