View From a Height
Commentary from the Mile High City
Sunday, January 25, 2004

U.S. News and John Ashcroft

U.S. News, in its January 26th issue, runs a cover story on Attorney General John Ashcroft. Unlike most reporting on this subject, Ms. Ragavan makes a deliberate attempt to separate the personal from the policy.

I thought the policy questions got more of a fair shake than you normally see. For instance, it treats the Patriot Act rationally, making the point that most of its provisions were already in force for organized crime investigations. It takes to task those critics who lump in detainees and deportees with Patriot Act complaints, pointing out that the rhetoric is unfair, as one has nothing to do with the other.

It did seem to me, however, that their treatment of the alleged politicization of the department, while not taking the complaints at face value, failed to sufficiently consider the source. The loudest complaints come from "junior staffers," whose only point of reference would be the severely politicized Reno Justice department. They would tend, by tenure, temperament, and politics, to find the appointment of conservatives by a conservative Attorney General objectionable. Only one career manager is quoted, who was one of five reassigned. Without being told his seniority, or how many career managers served on the level of those transferred, we have no perspective within which to judge his complaints. Certainly he might have reason to be resentful of the effects on his career, which would tend to impugn rather than confirm his testimony.

As for the personal, the following quote sums up the story's take. Fortunately, they avoid talking about his singing.

For all of the controversy he manages to attract, John Ashcroft is one of the least understood men in Washington. Derided as a religious zealot by some, Ashcroft has never invoked religion in policy or procedural discussions, say colleagues, who add that they have never even seen him pray. Challenged during his confirmation hearings as insensitive to minorities, Ashcroft worships regularly at a mostly black church. An ardent opponent of abortion, Ashcroft is praised by pro-abortion-rights groups for prosecuting violence against abortion clinics. A longtime gun-control foe, Ashcroft has increased prosecutions of certain gun crimes nearly 70 percent over three years. "One of the things that's frustrating about watching from the outside is he's a very charming, intelligent guy," says James Comey, who was confirmed as Ashcroft's deputy a month ago and served as the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan before that. "He's shockingly smart, but most people wouldn't think that. The guy is ferociously honest, but there are people who would not believe that. To some in the public, he is Darth Vader, but it's unfair because he's really not that way."

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