William Safire: John Ashcroft - The unflappable man
Friday, January 19, 2001
By WILLIAM SAFIRE, New York Times News Service
WASHINGTON - "Treason!" was the word shouted by Sen. Edward Kennedy at the maddeningly mild-mannered man1 selected by George W. Bush2 to be our next attorney general. The Massachusetts Mauler, delighted to be back in his full Bork mode, accentuated the incendiary word in quoting a slashing attack on former Sen. John Ashcroft by a liberal columnist. It seems4 that Ashcroft had once used the phrase "tyrannical central government" in discussing the historical context in which the framers adopted the Second Amendment, on the right to bear arms. "Only a madman," wrote the pundit loudly quoted by Kennedy, would take this view.5
Ordinarily, a nominee would take umbrage at being characterized with senatorial endorsement as a treasonous madman. Not since Joe McCarthy railed against "twenty years of treason" by Democrats had the T-word been used by a senator to besmear political opponents.6 Other members of the Judiciary Committee, of which Ashcroft had been a respected member, squirmed in their chairs at Kennedy's tirade. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., responded quietly: "It's very important for us to be careful about the language that we use....I'm concerned here about mischaracterization." This is senatorialese for lies used in character assassination.7
Through it all, the nation's next chief law officer never blinked. If John Ashcroft has a temper, he showed none of it.9 The Vermont Democrat Pat Leahy, this week's judicious Judiciary chairman,10 wanted to recess for cooling off,11 but first offered the slandered witness the time to blaze back at his tormenter. Ashcroft coolly replied, "I side with the chair." Leahy, a former prosecutor who knows when silence can be golden, smiled, "I thought you might."
The strategy of the clique that wants political war in Washington, and that provides Kennedy with his inflammatory index cards,12 is to rattle or infuriate the nominee, causing him to say something that can be used against him. Any bait will do: If the traitorous-maniac charge on gun control doesn't fly,13 their hope is that charges of racism or threats of a return to back-alley abortion will get a rise out of him.14
Ashcroft won't play their game. He keeps repeating his mantra - I will enforce the laws, even those I have personally opposed - and his unflappability in the face of the most strident provocation is driving the old, liberal Bork Brigade up the wall. His strategy is taken from Proverbs 1:15: "A soft answer turneth away wrath; but grievous words stir up anger." The temptation to strike back must be acute.15 Justice under Janet Reno is scandalously politicized. Only this week, a federal judge in Los Angeles turned aside her last-minute sweetheart plea bargain with President Clinton's illegal Asian moneybags, James Riady, assigning that corruption case to an Asian-American judge who will hear the plea when an unconflicted attorney general is in place.16
But not a grievous word out of Ashcroft. Thursday will be racism day, and an African-American judge whose leniency he opposed will be used to stir the pot of resentment. But to attribute racism to Ashcroft, who appointed more black judges than any Missouri governor and whose wife is revered for her years of teaching at mostly black Howard University,17 is to admit the bankruptcy of his opposition.18
Most Senate Democrats, visages suitably stern,19 are going through the motions of considering the nominee. Any with hopes of a future national-ticket nomination, or dependent on black or feminist support in the next election, will feel the heat to reject the Bush choice. Joe Biden and John Kerry, for example, will face racial profiling in courage. Only Hillary Clinton could afford to support Ashcroft; with those groups, she can do no wrong.20
At the center of the phony firestorm that suits all interest groups including the media, John Ashcroft is showing staunchly conservative and unabashedly liberal nominees how to handle a hearing: To win confirmation, avoid confrontation. His words are killing 'em softly,21 turning away wrath. About the only thing that can bring this pious pol down now is the discovery22 of a photograph showing him smoking a cigarette, drink in hand, dancing.23
1 No comment.
2 Isn't it time we let go the W? I think we know which Bush we're talking about. You know, the bad one.
4 Objection: hearsay.
5 Objection: I forgot what we're talking about?
6 Objection: should say "bitch slap."
7 Sigh. No word deserves to have "ese" after it. I don't care what it's done. And what lies? Where? "It's all subjective until somebody loses an eye." Or, "in the space program no one can hear you lie."
9 Duh! That's because I have his temper, right here in this glass jar. Know your facts man, before you set out to write a column.
10 Killing me with droll.
11 Don't say recess. It makes me jump up from my little chair and start heading for the playground for some tether ball. Then I get sad, I mean really sad, when I realize that I'll never have that back.
12 "inflammatory index cards." Hey now, that's pretty good. No, seriously.
13 I think you meant 'work' instead of 'fly.' Geez.
14 Oh, but it will get a rise out of him. I'm just not sure it's the kind of rise you're thinking of.
15 Is it just me, or is John Ashcroft's head shaped somewhat like a gum drop, or a thimble?
16 Okay, I have no idea what that paragraph was about. The only thing I got was that Janet Reno has been vandalized. Well, this is an outrage! Just tell me what I can do to help put those responsible on closed caption T.V., so we can watch them fry and have closure.
17 He should have said "black." He should have said "black." Oh, that would have been so great. "…and whose wife is...black." Now that would have shut me up for a year. I still remember the first time I saw William Cohen's black wife. I was cleaning out the…
18 No, no, no. Bill, you've got it all wrong. If Al Sharpton says he's a racist, well then that's good enough for me. I don't understand why we're even still talking about it.
19 Is that like, short for "visages suitably Sternbergersee?" T.S. Eliot lives. Fantastic!
20 Should read "…she could pick her nose and eat it."
21 Objection: familiarity. Breeds contempt.
22 Oooh, legal term. Good. Good.
23 Dancing what? Please be more specific. It matters to me. And what about a picture of me smoking and drinking? Would that help?
Okay, what is all this about? William Safire is a famous and well respected wordsmith. Just where the hell do I get off? I don't know.
Making Fun of Safire Protegés
Making Fun of Safire Protegés