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John Ashcroft: The zealot who holds Bush's future in his hands

By Rupert Cornwell

04 October 2003

America being a country dedicated to free enterprise and the pursuit of the greenback, the Pentagon's celebrated "deck of cards" identifying leading Iraqi villains has inevitably spawned a host of imitators. One of the best-selling is a set identifying the movers and shakers of Republican Washington. George Bush, of course, is the ace of spades and almost equally obviously Donald Rumsfeld, ruthless master of the mighty US war machine, is the ace of hearts.

But the face on the third ranking card, the ace of diamonds, may come as a surprise. It belongs not to Colin Powell, nor even to Vice-President Dick Cheney, but to John Ashcroft: devout Christian, decent baritone, formerly a senator from Missouri and now Attorney General of the United States.

For the benefit of more casual followers of American politics, Mr Ashcroft's post is a rather complicated cross between the British office of the same name and that of Home Secretary. But the truth which matters is very simple. He is among the most powerful Attorneys General of recent times, a living symbol of the sharp (some would say paranoid) rightward lurch of American politics in the aftermath of 11 September.

Mr Rumsfeld and his neo-conservative deputy Paul Wolfowitz may have plotted the foreign campaigns in Mr Bush's war on terrorism. But on the home front, John Ashcroft the paleo-conservative has been in command - the prime architect of the infamous Patriot Act rushed through by Congress in the wake of the terrorist attacks, and which is described by his legion of critics as the gravest assault on American civil liberties since Joe McCarthy's anti-communist witch-hunts of the 1950s.

But now he could have an even more direct hand in the fate of the suddenly troubled Bush presidency. The Ashcroft Justice Department is handling the investigation into precisely who at the White House leaked an undercover CIA agent's name to the press, an affair which is quickly turning into the juiciest Washington scandal since Bill Clinton left town.

As Attorney General, he must decide whether or not to appoint a special outside prosecutor. Ashcroft is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. To refuse to take a step supported by 70 per cent of the public, according to one poll this week, would reek of a cover-up. But to bring in an outside prosecutor would strike at one of Mr Bush's most cherished selling points: that after eight years of Clintonian sleaze he has restored integrity and dignity to the Oval Office.

John Ashcroft calls himself a "common-sense conservative". But for liberals, gays, minority groups, and civil libertarians of every hue, he is a stubborn, strait-laced fanatic, the very antithesis of common sense, who is waging a one-man war against secular America. In their eyes, he is emblem of how zealots of the religious right are tightening their grip on a Republican Party in which moderates are an endangered species.

For us Europeans, Ashcroft is a vaguely frightening yet vaguely comic figure, with his uncompromising mind-set and the evangelic Christianity which is the key to understanding him. As ardently as the President, he sees the world in black-and-white, "with us or against us" terms. He waxes enthusiastic about the death penalty. He regards homosexuality as a biblical sin, and seems to believe that no civic right is so precious it cannot be sacrificed to protect the security of the homeland from the terrorists in its midst.

Then there is the prudish John Ashcroft, who makes us laugh. This is an Attorney General so ill at ease with nudity that he ordered a bare-breasted female statue, Spirit of Justice, to be covered up in the Justice Department press room, lest the country's chief law enforcement officer be seen by the world with two large iron nipples as a backdrop.

Or there is the musical John Ashcroft, once a member of the "singing senators" quartet in his days on Capitol Hill; since 11 September he has been in the habit of having his senior officials sing rousing Christian hymns at the start of their day's work.

Finally there is the goofy John Ashcroft, who each time he has assumed a new political office has had himself anointed with holy oil, "in the manner of King David" as he wrote in his 1998 autobiography Lessons From a Father to His Son. When he entered the Senate, the only unguent at hand for the task, performed by father J Robert Ashcroft, was Crisco cooking oil. When he was confirmed as Attorney General in early 2001, Clarence Thomas (the arch-conservative who is Ashcroft's favourite Justice on the Supreme Court) did the honours - though the variety of oil is not recorded.

All of which renders him faintly ridiculous and largely incomprehensible to foreigners (except perhaps to the Islamic fanatics of whom this 21st-century crusader on occasion appears the mirror image), a character beyond the realm of their experience. In America, however, where political wars are now culture wars, he makes perfect sense.

As the political analyst William Schneider has written, American politics in the wake of Bill Clinton is as much about values and lifestyle as economics. Clinton, notes Schneider, was the first president to be thrown up by the culture of the 1960s. George Bush may be of that generation, but not of that culture. Exactly the same is true of Ashcroft; at 61 he is four years Bush's senior.

Both his parents were in the church. J Robert Ashcroft was a travelling evangelist and educator, who would begin the day with prayers thunderously delivered, in a household where smoking, drinking and dancing were forbidden. "Dad's prayers were not the whispered entreaties of a timid Sunday school teacher," Ashcroft Jnr wrote in his autobiography. "My father prayed as if his family's life and vitality were even then being debated on high as he bowed low." Half a century later, the son still speaks of "inviting" God into his every activity.

But although Ashcroft grew up in Springfield, Missouri, world headquarters of the fundamentalist Assemblies of God church to which he belongs, he is no stereotyped product of the Bible Belt. Aside from his choral predilections, however, he is a serious, rather reserved man. Even his political opponents do not challenge his integrity of his views.

After graduating from Yale and then the University of Chicago Law School, Ashcroft taught law at Southwest Missouri State University (a position he used to secure an occupational deferment during the Vietnam War). By then the young man was set on a political career.

The start was not impressive, mostly defeats until he won a close election to become Missouri's attorney general in 1976, a post he held for six years before serving two terms as governor. Back home, it was not the intensity of his religious convictions which made him controversial, but his views on the old south and segregation, and in particular his ferocious opposition to the appointment of a black Missouri judge to the federal bench.

Once elected to the Senate, Ashcroft's record was exactly as the form book suggested. He opposed abortion and gun control, and earned a 100 per cent conservative rating from the influential Christian coalition in its assessment of Congressional voting. Not surprisingly, when the Monica Lewinsky affair surfaced in January 1998, Ashcroft was the first senator to call for Clinton to resign. A year later he even toyed with a run for the White House himself, before concluding that the Bush juggernaut was unstoppable.

Nothing, however, during a career in elective politics was as bizarre as the manner of its ending. In November 2000, Ashcroft the incumbent was defeated by a challenger in his grave - the state's Democratic governor Mel Carnahan who had died in a plane crash three weeks before polling day. After Carnahan's wife Jean indicated she would take up the Senate seat, a sympathy vote propelled her late husband to victory. Failure, however, catapulted Ashcroft into one of the four great offices of the federal government.

His achievements as Attorney General may be questionable. For all the changes at the FBI, which the Justice directs, and for all the people arrested since 11 September (many of them held in circumstances which violate any reasonable reading of the Constitution), Americans say they feel no safer than they did before the terrorist attacks. Meanwhile, Zacharias Moussaoui, the sole individual charged with being part of the attacks, is making a laughing stock of the federal government. No matter. Ashcroft may now be the most powerful Attorney General since Robert Kennedy, and for much the same reason: a very close relationship with the man in the Oval Office.

Spiritually, the "common-sense conservative" is on the same wavelength as the born-again Christian and self-proclaimed "compassionate conservative" George Bush. The two men share the same Manichean view of the universe, and the same God-given certainty - so infuriating to their foes - in the rightness of their cause.

No less important, Ashcroft is a vital bridge to Christian Conservatives, a core Bush constituency whose mobilisation is essential for his re-election in 2004. Which leads back, indirectly, to "Leak-gate" - and to the man presumed by many to be at the eye of the storm. He is Karl Rove, the President's most influential adviser and architect of the "get out the God vote" strategy for 2004.

Among the many things that Bush and Ashcroft share is Rove's hand in their biggest election triumphs. Rove masterminded the 2000 presidential victory, and was also a paid consultant on both of Ashcroft's gubernatorial campaigns in the 1980s, as well as his winning Senate race in 1994. For Democrats this is as blatant a conflict of interests as it gets; surely the person supervising the investigation cannot be rigorously impartial in his treatment of Rove, who did so much for himself and his boss.

This is Ashcroft's dilemma, pitting the office against the man. He insists there is no contradiction; that Justice Department lawyers can manage. But many think that an outside prosecutor is inevitable. In which case the kindred spirit of a president could be taking the decision that might yet be that president's undoing.


Born: David John Ashcroft 9 May 1942 in Chicago, Illinois, son of J Robert Ashcroft, an Assemblies of God minister.

Family: Married Janet Elise Roede 1967; two sons, one daughter.

Education: Yale University (graduated with honours 1964), University of Chicago Law School.

Church: Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal group whose headquarters are in Ashcroft's home town of Springfield, Missouri.

Political career: Attorney General for Missouri 1976-85; Governor of Missouri 1985-1993; US Senator for Missouri 1995-2001. US Attorney General


Hobbies: Singing, songwriting, playing piano, fishing, tennis, hiking, dirt-biking.

He says: "It is said we shouldn't legislate morality. Well, I disagree. I think all we should legislate is morality. We shouldn't legislate immorality."

"Islam is a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him. Christianity is a faith in which God sends his son to die for you."

They say: "When I am President of the United States, there will be no John Ashcroft trampling on the Bill of Rights." - John Kerry, Massachusetts Senator and Democratic candidate in 2004

"John Ashcroft is a man of great integrity, a man of great judgement and a man who knows the law." - President George Bush, when nominating Ashcroft to be Attorney General in December 2000


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