Letter from Washington: All Ashcroft, All the Time

Wednesday should have been a good day for former Sen. John Ashcroft. His prospects for confirmation as George W. Bush???s attorney general, which had always been bright, started to take on an aura of certainty. Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia became the first Democrat to announce his support???a breakthrough for Ashcroft in the evenly divided Senate. Even a couple of Democrats on the Judiciary Committee conceded that he was likely to be confirmed.

But after two days in the witness chair, Ashcroft resembled not so much the presumptive attorney general as a pinata at a kids??? birthday party. While the outcome is all but decided, the hearings continued as advertised: as a scrimmage for Democrats, liberal interest groups and presidential aspirants to rally their constituencies and play themselves into shape for the larger fights over Supreme Court nominations that are almost certain to break out in the Bush II era.

For the second day in a row, Ashcroft was upbraided by Sen. Edward Kennedy, who described him as ???far out of the mainstream??? for his opposition to gun control, particularly his interpretation of the Second Amendment to the Constitution as giving Americans the right to bear arms to protect themselves from a ???tyrannical??? federal government. ???I think the nominee owes an apology to the people of the United States for that insinuation,??? Kennedy bellowed, ???talking about our government now being a source of tyrannical oppression.???

No apology was forthcoming from Ashcroft. Rather than signaling contrition, there were moments during the past two days when he looked as if he wanted to throttle Kennedy. His face became hardened with resentment, and, for an instant or two, it seemed as if he were literally trembling with anger.

Ashcroft fared no better with Sen. Joseph Biden, a possible presidential contender in 2004, who denounced a 1998 interview Ashcroft gave to Southern Partisan, a magazine that has celebrated the Confederacy and lauded slave owners. In the interview, Ashcroft commended the magazine for ???defending Southern patriots like [Robert E.] Lee??? and challenging the idea that they fought the Civil War ???for some perverted agenda.??? Said Biden: ???Speaking to them implies, to me, an incredible insensitivity, number one. Number two, speaking to them, learning who they are, and not condemning them after the fact implies a bit of bullheadedness at the least and a???I don???t know what else, but it ain???t good.???

Ashcroft affirmed his opposition to racism and racist organizations. But then he launched into an odd discussion of the Civil War???the kind that makes African-Americans and other opponents of his nomination nervous. ???Had I been fighting in the Civil War, I would have fought with [Gen.] Grant. I probably would have, at Appomattox, winced a little bit when Grant let Lee keep his sword and take his horse home with him,??? he said. ???But I think it was the right decision. It was a signal at that time by the people on the ground that they recognized that some people who fought on both sides were people of decent will....You know why we should respect Grant. You know why we should respect Lee. This Congress has acted to restore the citizenship of Robert E. Lee...and at the time they did so, they said the entire nation has long recognized the outstanding virtues of courage, patriotism and selfless devotion to duty of Gen. Robert E. Lee.???

Biden replied: ???John, you???re good, but this ain???t about Robert E. Lee. I just hope when you???re attorney general you will understand you???ve got to reach out.??? It didn???t take long for the hearing to become tense and contentious. Inside the packed hearing room, groups like People for the American Way and the Republican National Committee inundated reporters with press releases challenging Ashcroft???s statements, or charging various hypocrisies on the part of Democrats grilling the nominee. Outside, other advocates pressed their cases to any reporters who would listen; some expressed their disdain for the partisan nature of the confirmation process, sporting buttons that said ???Search and Destroy??? with a red slash through the middle.

Within minutes of bringing the Judiciary Committee to order Tuesday afternoon, Chairman Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat, and Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, the ranking minority member, were bickering over the planned length of the hearing. Perhaps the most dramatic moment of the proceedings so far came later Tuesday when Ashcroft tried to assure the committee that he would uphold all the laws as attorney general, even ones he didn???t believe in. Rising from his table and lifting his right hand, he said: ???When I swear to uphold the law, I will keep my oath, so help me God.??? Moments later, a group of advocates for homeless people with AIDS began shouting ???Ashcroft kills,??? a reference to his opposition to clean-needle exchange programs for addicts. As the Capitol Hill police dragged them from the hearing room, 98-year-old Strom Thurmond, the South Carolina Republican, could be heard saying in his thick drawl: ???Put ???em out and keep ???em out.???

Ashcroft took pains to place himself in a more moderate light than his conservative record would suggest. He promised not to seek a Supreme Court reversal of Roe v. Wade, the decision that established a women???s right to an abortion. He also committed to defending the constitutionality of gun-control laws, even those he had opposed in the Senate.

By late Wednesday evening, as the day???s hearing stretched into its eleventh hour, Ashcroft was gone???finally excused from the witness table???but his critics continued their rhetorical assault. ???I simply do not trust John Ashcroft,??? said Rep. Maxine Waters, the fiery California Democrat. ???I believe he is saying whatever he needs to be confirmed.???