Ashcroft's Pr Offensive

When John Ashcroft was struggling to win confirmation as attorney general early this year, critics vilified him as a right-wing ideologue who would turn back the clock on abortion and civil rights. Now, the keenly political ex-senator is fighting his latest campaign--this time, a carefully choreographed effort to remake his image, especially among African-Americans.

Ashcroft has named minorities to several high-level Justice posts. He upped the budget for enforcing voting rights and urged Congress to enact laws against racial profiling. During this month's riots in Cincinnati, he went out of his way to respond to NAACP president Kweisi Mfume's calls for action by quickly dispatching Justice Department officials to the scene. "He told me this was a priority for him personally," says Mfume, who led the fight against Ashcroft's nomination. "I was quite pleased." At a Justice ceremony last month, the attorney general stood on a stage flanked by a black pastor and gospel choir. "There's no question he's trying to rehabilitate himself," says Gentry Trotter, a black St. Louis businessman and former Ashcroft political supporter. "But some of what he's been doing is just overkill." Ashcroft dismisses the idea that he's inventing himself anew. The nastiness of the confirmation hearings, he says, is "behind us." Yet even he lampooned his "reaching-out campaign" at Washington's campy Gridiron Club dinner. "Next week I will be meeting with the left-handed, vegetarian, Eastern European, lesbian, transsexual supporters on saving the whooping crane," he deadpanned.

Behind the public atmospherics, there are signs that Ashcroft is quietly building a Justice Department that may be as conservative as his critics predicted. Thomas Sansonetti, a Wyoming lawyer-lobbyist who represents big coal companies, was recently named to head the Justice office that enforces environmental laws. Ideologically committed lawyers--many of them active in the staunchly conservative Federalist Society--have been named to other top jobs. Most of the minorities Ashcroft tapped share his conservative views, including Larry Thompson, a black GOP lawyer Ashcroft picked for deputy attorney general. "These are our people," Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, said recently.

One issue where Ashcroft won't yield: the death penalty. Shortly before leaving office, Bill Clinton granted a six-month reprieve to condemned drug dealer and murderer Juan Garza--saying he wanted to study why blacks and Hispanics were disproportionately targeted for death-penalty cases. The studies continue, but Ashcroft says they won't alter Garza's fate. "I know of no reason not to proceed with the Garza execution," he says. Ashcroft may be showing off his softer side, but his view of the law isn't bending.