Politics

John Ashcroft's Power Grab

The saga of a troubled -- and troubling -- attorney general.

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When U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft was eight years old, his father, J. Robert Ashcroft, took the boy up in a Piper Cub airplane. Then Dad blessed young John with a special treat.

"John, I'd like you to fly this plane for a while," he said.

"I was one awestruck kid," Ashcroft remembers lovingly at the very beginning of his 1998 memoir, On My Honor: The Beliefs That Shape My Life. But he was also a lost one: "What do I do?" he shouted to his pa.

"Just grab the stick and push it straight forward."

Which of course sent the plane into a terrifying "bombing-raid dive toward a farm"I lost all sense of time or place as fear gripped my insides."

Turned out it was all just a practical joke. Dad saved them in the nick of time — and, recounts John, "had a good chuckle" at the expense of his naive son.

Was young John mistrustful of his trickster father after such an intense prank? In his autobiography, Ashcroft chooses the high road, completely recasting what might seem a particularly mean bit of joshing as a deliberate attempt to teach him a valuable lesson. The lesson, Ashcroft writes, is that "actions have consequences."In a positive sense, I learned that wherever I was, if I put my hand to something, I could make a difference."

Uh, yeah. The boy in the famous joke, digging through the pile of manure looking for the pony, has nothing on our nation's top cop. The most obvious response to Ashcroft's version of this story is, What the hell is wrong with this guy? While it's certainly the type of thing a boy is apt to remember, what would possess a man writing a memoir — meant largely to honor dear old dad — to start his book with this particular anecdote?

The stories we choose to tell on ourselves are, well, telling. Given its place of pride in his book, Ashcroft's father tricking him seems to be his most beloved, or at least most vibrant, childhood memory. Ashcroft, one can infer, believes in something like Tough Love. (Indeed, treating juvenile crooks as adults has been a pet theme through his entire political career.) And if the attorney general, the "nation's top cop," is the symbolic disciplinarian and parental figure for American society, then we're all Ashcroft's kids now — which could mean some harrowing times ahead.

Yet Ashcroft is a far more complicated father figure than most of his enemies grant. They see him in one role only: the stern disciplinarian driven by an unshakable belief that God and he are as one, a man so prudish he can't tolerate unclothed statuary. But the American father-figure template includes many different roles, and Ashcroft has filled more than a few during his public life. At times, he's come across as an obsessive, driven, and ultimately self-destructive tyrant given to fits of rage (think Robert Duvall in The Great Santini). Other times, he's an overly earnest goody-two-shoes quick with an uplifting Bible verse (think The Simpsons' Ned Flanders). And sometimes, he comes across as a sleepy-brained, bumbling doofus falling into trouble (think Blondie's Dagwood Bumstead).

Especially given the immense power he's holding in post-9/11 America, it's worth contemplating the varied facets of John Ashcroft — and their flaws. He's a religious man at loggerheads with the dominant culture; a politician who has mostly been (despite surface appearances) a failure; and an attorney general who may be turning into something worse than his enemies anticipated — though perhaps not in the way they assumed.

True Believer

In December, The Weekly Standard, as staunch a friend as Ashcroft has in the media, did a laudatory cover story on "General Ashcroft," praising the fightin' spirit that 9/11 brought out in the former senator from Missouri. Indeed, Ashcroft is a man at war not simply with Muslim extremists, but with secular America. Central to any consideration of him is his religion, which was also one of the reasons, rightly or wrongly, that he was hated and feared by the left long before 9/11. Born in 1942, Ashcroft grew up the dutiful child of a roving Assemblies of God minister who later settled down to run various Bible colleges in Missouri. Grandpa was an Assemblies holy man as well.

The Assemblies of God is the largest Pentecostalist denomination in America, with 2.3 million members in the United States and 30 million worldwide. It was the first centralized religious institution to emerge from the radically decentralized Pentecostal movement that began to sweep America in the first decade of the 20th century. Pentecostals believe that every child of God should be his own minister, imbued directly with the Holy Spirit and the gift of speaking in tongues. Ashcroft is thus that most derided figure on the American religious landscape, the Holy Roller — an actual, serious one. (The notorious Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, icons of ridiculous religiosity, were both Assemblies preachers.)

Besides speaking in tongues, the Assemblies practice such peculiarities as faith healing. In short, it's the sort of religion that scares cosmopolitan secularists witless. In biblical style, Ashcroft has had himself anointed in oil (Crisco, if that's all that's on hand) upon ascending to political office. He once vowed that were he ever to become president, he would publicly kneel and pray for divine guidance while being sworn in. That's the sort of statement that makes centrist liberals, hardcore lefties, and the odd atheistic right-winger fear Ashcroft as much as he fears God. And the attorney general follows other Assemblies dictates that further place him outside the American mainstream: He's staunchly opposed on religious grounds to drinking, gambling, and even dancing.

Yet he is, in his own straight-laced and traditional way, a radical cultural rebel. Despite his outsider status and the opprobrium it generates, he won't give in. Like a caring though peculiar dad advising against peer-group conformity, he stands against the crowd and is publicly (and by all accounts privately) true to the values of a serious religious conservative with one-and-only-one wife (Janet, a law professor with whom he's collaborated on legal textbooks) and three kids.

He's also hopelessly corny, creating waves of contemptuous mirth all across the Internet, where clips of him singing one of his self-composed gospel songs abound. While a member of the Senate, he and three colleagues formed a vocal quartet, the Singing Senators, to record and perform patriotic and devotional ditties. The group even trekked to that capital of American cornpone hokum, Branson — tellingly located in Ashcroft's home state — to croon with the Oak Ridge Boys.

Ashcroft's squeaky-clean Christian image is built on more than personal habits. People have reported that while being interviewed for jobs by Ashcroft, they were asked if they had ever committed adultery. (One applicant reports being asked if he were gay, a story Ashcroft denies.) He was the first senator to publicly call upon President Clinton to resign over his affair with that woman, Monica Lewinsky. As Missouri governor, he vetoed a Sunday liquor sales bill, signed into law the first Missouri restrictions on underage smoking, restricted rentals of violent movies to minors, and cracked down on casual drug use (even as one of his top aides was exposed by a squealing college buddy as a pothead and coke-sniffer and quietly resigned). As federal attorney general, he has revived the sort of porn prosecutions that languished in the Bill Clinton-Janet Reno era.

Still, Ashcroft is not some backwoods, Holy Roller hick. He is part of a generation of Pentecostals who have engaged the larger world rather than staying within their own separatist institutions. Hence, Ashcroft attended college at Yale and law school at the University of Chicago. "Ashcroft," notes Edith Blumhofer, a historian at Wheaton College who has written several books on the Assemblies, "was brought up in what was in some ways a conservative Assemblies of God home. His father was very pietist and devoted to prayer. Yet Ashcroft was not told to go to Yale and fight the battle — he went there simply as a student, with no agenda to convert the place." For a devout member of the Assemblies, says Blumhofer, Ashcroft was exceptional in combining the secular and the religious.

The religious historian Grant Wacker once described Pentecostals as having a "jut-jawed stress on personal autonomy," and Ashcroft is the first Assemblies worshipper to be elected either governor or senator. In that context, Ashcroft's political career can be read as an experiment in the assimilation of a peculiarly independent religious tradition into the mainstream.

The experiment can only be described as an awkward semi-success so far. Certainly, John Ashcroft is the attorney general of the United States — a position of considerable power and influence. But by following the dictates of his faith and upbringing, he has crafted a public image that media sophisticates on both coasts see as charmingly goofy at best and dangerously retrograde at worst. Though many Americans agree with him (at least generally) about such matters as God, family, and abortion, Ashcroft has surely noticed that it just isn't OK to the opinion makers to be who he is.

One reason the very Pentecostal Ashcroft has been able to make the headway he has in national politics is because, despite his demonization as a zealot, he's always been more Ned Flanders than Cotton Mather. He's never fought back at his critics with fire and brimstone. Instead, he's more likely to appear in friendly surroundings, such as Orange County, California's famous Crystal Cathedral, and quip, "I always thought that if I was accused of being a strong Christian there was enough evidence to convict me."

As he shifted his political ambitions from Missouri, where serious Pentecostalism is less outré than elsewhere, to the national stage, Ashcroft has insisted again and again that "it's against my religion to impose religion on people." At least once, though, while speaking to the Christian magazine Charisma, he let slip that "I think all we should legislate is morality."

Yet it's safe to say that Ashcroft is a gentler kind of modern religious man, a compassionate conservative before it was cool. As senator he worked to allow religious groups to administer federal aid of various sorts. He made new flextime requirements one of his major concerns — so parents can attend Little League games (as, he notes glumly in his memoirs, his traveling preacher father didn't) and take care of scraped knees.

It's worth noting about Assemblies members that, as historian Blumhofer says, "When they look at the world, the divine is quite immanent to them." Practices such as morning prayer meetings in the office are as natural as breathing to Ashcroft, even if they are anathema to a large segment of the populace he is supposed to serve. His strong and oft-expressed religiosity makes for an awkward relationship between Ashcroft the cop and the beat he walks.

Born to Lose

Take a quick look at his résumé, and you'd conclude that John Ashcroft has had a stunningly successful political career. A deeper read, however, suggests something more complicated, a pattern of embarrassing defeats and hollow victories.

After graduating from Yale in 1964 and the University of Chicago Law School three years later, Ashcroft taught law at Southwest Missouri State University — a position of such vital national importance that he used it to get an occupational deferment during the Vietnam War. His political career began poorly with two defeats, the first in a GOP primary while running for Congress in 1972. His respectable 45 percent showing in the primary brought him to the attention of Republican Gov. Kit Bond, who appointed Ashcroft to a midterm vacancy for state auditor. But Ashcroft lost the job when he actually had to face the voters in '74.

It was all uphill from there — at least in Missouri, and at least on paper. In 1975 he was appointed to assistant attorney general of the state. In 1976, he squeaked through a tight election and became Missouri's attorney general. He went on to serve eight years in that post, followed by eight years as governor and then six as U.S. senator.

But Ashcroft's political tenure in Missouri seems more comic-gothic than inspiring or statesmanlike. Events just didn't give him many occasions to rise to. Instead, we see Ashcroft signing the papers to disincorporate the city of Times Beach, victim of a notorious dioxin scare; urging tourists to avoid his state lest they interfere with an ongoing FBI manhunt for neo-Nazis; petulantly refusing for a time to return a commemorative silver dinner set to its rightful owner, the U.S.S. Missouri; commuting a death sentence because the condemned man's attorney told the jury, "Why sully your hands with this piece of flotsam?"; being sued on behalf of a fetus whose lawyers claimed was illegitimately imprisoned inside a ne'er-do-well mom; legalizing rape due to a clerical error; begging constantly for federal aid as his hapless state was battered by floods and crop failures; and unsuccessfully bowing and scraping on Donahue to General Motors execs in the hopes that they would site new auto plants in his state. Colorful, sad, besieged place, Ashcroft's Missouri.

Ashcroft did win something important during his Missouri days, though: a couple of powerful national enemies in the civil rights and women's lobbies. Eventually they would help make his confirmation process for U.S. attorney general so grueling (and so amusing to read about). Accusations of racism have stalked Ashcroft from his days as Missouri's attorney general, when he fought a court-imposed school integration plan — not out of any racist intention, he insisted, but because it placed an unfair tax burden on the people of Missouri.

If his opposition to the school plan issued from his principles, it's less clear what motivated him to block Bill Clinton's appointment of the black Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White to a federal judgeship. Ashcroft advanced inchoate feelings that White just might be too "activist" and got the entire GOP to go along with him by spreading misleading accounts of White's being soft on capital punishment. In reality, Judge White had voted to uphold death penalty convictions 41 out of 59 times, and almost always voted with the panel majority. So at the very least, there was rank demagoguery behind Ashcroft's campaign against the judge. Speaking at the anti-race-mixing Bob Jones University and giving an interview to the Confederate fan magazine Southern Partisan — which he praised for trying to convince Americans that the Confederates were not "giving their lives, subscribing their sacred fortunes and their honor to some perverted agenda" — didn't help Ashcroft's reputation with the civil rights cognoscenti either.

In attempting to deflect accusations of racism, Ashcroft's goofy, hapless

Dagwood Bumstead persona comes to the fore. He assures readers of his memoir that his father possessed "the foresight to prevent his son's prejudices at an early age" by playing him Mahalia Jackson records and making him read the left-wing black novelist Richard Wright (while not, Ashcroft assures us, "subscrib[ing] to everything Wright advocated"). A further sign of the Ashcroft family's progressive stance on race is that his parents let black guests rake leaves in the backyard — just as they would any other visitor.

The women's movement has had it in for Ashcroft since he came up with a startling antitrust innovation in the late '70s. As Missouri's attorney general, he sued the National Organization for Women because they were leading a boycott of the state over its failure to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. The boycott, Ashcroft argued, was a "restraint of trade." Get it? The judge didn't either. Ashcroft lost.

His steadfast rhetorical objection to abortion (except to save the life of the mother) and some restrictions on it he either passed or advocated in Missouri (he wanted to completely ban second abortions, for instance) have also made him a women's movement pariah.

Yet even his enemies typically grant that there's a certain kind of basic personal integrity that we can expect from Ashcroft. He is unlikely to screw the interns, accept bribes, gamble, or, God forbid, dance. Of course, that is the least important kind of integrity to expect from a politician.

When it comes to a more substantive integrity — devotion to core political principles — there aren't very many important ideas that Ashcroft is solid on. He is more likely to adopt specific proposals in an ad hoc, disconnected way. He was for trade sanctions against Sudan because they don't respect religious freedom; yet he later plumped (rightly) to end the Cuban boycott (after earlier supporting it). He was foursquare against national standards for education but insists on them for drug and suicide laws.

Ultimately, Ashcroft's appeal to conservatives seems to be rooted more in his persona and his religiosity than actual conservative legislative achievements. And that appeal has proven pretty thin outside Missouri. Although he won with 64 percent of the vote in his second gubernatorial race and swept every county in his first Senate race, Ashcroft was a nobody on the national stage until Bush tapped him for attorney general. Dating back to the first Reagan administration, Ashcroft had been a perpetual name floating up as someone who just might be named attorney general in a Republican administration. Similarly, he was a prominent might-have-been vice presidential candidate for Bob Dole in '96. He ran hard for president through most of '97 and '98 in that "just looking" way, rousing much excitement among the likes of Pat Robertson. But he eventually acknowledged in January 1999 that the support wasn't there.

It hadn't been there earlier in the decade, either, when Ashcroft made a spectacularly weak run for chairman of the Republican National Committee. He'd been term-limited out of the Missouri state house in '93 and was cooling his heels before he could run for Senate in '94. Despite having far and away the most prominent political experience of any of the candidates for chairman, Ashcroft came in third on the first ballot, behind Haley Barbour (then just a former Reagan aide) and current Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham (then just a former Dan Quayle aide). He was so despondent at his loss that he avoided the traditional stand-on-the-dais-together unity display.

Later, even his home state let him down. In 2000, Ashcroft famously suffered what is surely one of the most humiliating political defeats in American history. Not only did he fail to get re-elected to the Senate — something 80 percent of incumbents pull off — but he lost to a dead man, Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan. What made the loss all the more dramatic was the longtime rivalry between Ashcroft and Carnahan, who had been lieutenant governor when Ashcroft was Missouri's chief executive.

Bad blood between them flowed long and deep, from the days when Ashcroft went to court to establish that he didn't cede power to his lieutenant every time he left the state. Ashcroft even pettily ended the practice of paying Carnahan a pro-rated higher salary on days Ashcroft was absent. Their Senate election was bitter and mean: If Carnahan tried to insinuate Ashcroft had a race problem, John's boys would distribute old photos of Carnahan in blackface. The Show Me State, indeed.

Then, less than a month before the election, Carnahan's plane crashed, killing the governor, his eldest son, and a trusted aide. When the person who wins Senate elections in Missouri can't serve, the governor — in this case, Democrat Roger Wilson — appoints someone to the vacancy until the next election. Wilson made it clear that he would choose the grieving widow and mother, Jean Carnahan. In the pollster's argot, the late Mel suddenly had no negatives and Jean's mere ability to stride in public purposefully with the ghosts of husband and son hovering nearby was enough to dig Ashcroft's political grave.

There Ashcroft was, then — a small-account politician of no particular achievement or rigor from a difficult little state, repudiated on the national stage and suffering a uniquely stinging political defeat. Yet Ashcroft gallantly chose not to challenge the election, though he had various procedural tacks he could have taken. In his highly praised concession speech, Ashcroft said that "the will of the people has been expressed with compassion" and that he "hope[s] that the outcome"is a matter of comfort to Mrs. Carnahan."

However tough that loss must have been, it must have been even more bruising when, a few months later, the new Sen. Carnahan voted against Ashcroft for attorney general. Mr. Dithers couldn't have humiliated poor, hapless Dagwood any better.

Angry Attorney General

It might have seemed that Ashcroft was politically dead after losing to the late Carnahan. But as he wrote in his memoir, for every crucifixion there's a resurrection. President George W. Bush rolled away the stone by nominating Ashcroft for attorney general, and even the doubting Thomases in the Senate hearings had to recognize that Ashcroft had arisen. Even then, though, Ashcroft was not a first choice, but a compromise sop to the GOP's religious right wing. His confirmation battle was brutal even by contemporary standards, and a lifetime's worth of political foes portrayed Ashcroft as a freakish chimera of Anita Bryant, Torquemada, and George Lincoln Rockwell. His own performance in the hearings seemed to hurt, not help, his cause. Analysts predicted at the beginning of the hearings that a good 80 of his erstwhile colleagues would support him, but he eventually squeaked through by only four votes, 52-48.

As he launched the newest phase of his career, Ashcroft first played the role of the dad with the soft touch, shuffling along, doing whatever it takes to keep the family happy. He seemingly scheduled every day around publicly kissing up to the people who hate him most. He was no racist, by God, so he said he was going to make ending "racial profiling" his major concern. (Post-9/11, of course, profiling is back with a vengeance, and with a new target about whom no one seems upset.) Does Ashcroft's religion think homosexuality is an abomination? Sure, but that wouldn't stop him from meeting with the Log Cabin Republicans. Despite his consistent opposition to racial preferences while a legislator, Ashcroft's Justice Department filed an enthusiastic defense of such programs in the Adarand case — a case that Sen. Ashcroft particularly liked to moan about. The staunchly anti-abortion Ashcroft ordered federal marshals to protect abortion doctors, and his DOJ collared the killers of abortionists in France.

We cannot presume to know what a politician really thinks, even, or perhaps especially, from listening to what he says. So we must imagine how the long series of defeats and disappointments — and the constant attacks from the country's dominant culture — must have burned in Ashcroft's psyche before 9/11. Ashcroft's immediate response to the attacks was to sink into a dark Orwellian morass of secret detentions, warrantless wiretaps, and eavesdropping on lawyers. Meanwhile, he instructed his charges at the Department of Justice to do whatever was legally possible to ignore and stonewall Freedom of Information Act requests. It's irresistible to wonder if the post-9/11 Ashcroft is a long-suffering, go-along-to-get-along dad who finally snaps, yanks up his trousers tight, and stomps forth, insistent that he just ain't gonna take it anymore. The days of pushing around Big John Ashcroft are over. Round up the Arabs and convene the military tribunals. And no, Mr. Liberal Media, I won't tell you who I've got locked up over here.

In prepared statements — not unscripted press conference bluster — Ashcroft famously warned his critics that they are essentially traitors. "Those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty," he inveighed before Congress, "your tactics only aid terrorists." He needed only to add "and comfort" to his statement to charge dissenters worried about infringements on civil liberties with the constitutional definition of treason.

The right-wing media are still loyally on his side. National Review's Jonah Goldberg wrote a painful syndicated column excoriating the liberal media for their "canards" about Ashcroft. It centered on the notion that since Ashcroft didn't use the word traitor it is completely unfair to characterize that statement as saying such. "So now Ashcroft is calling people 'traitors'? Go back and read what he actually said," Goldberg instructs of the quote above. "He didn't say anyone who questions the government is wrong, let alone a traitor." Sure — and calling someone a "long-eared, slow, patient, sure-footed domesticated mammal" isn't the same as calling him an ass.

In any case, it is surely no small matter, even during wartime footing, that Ashcroft has ordered the detention of hundreds of people without making public their identities or the charges they face. This is not simply an affront to the detainees, but to all of us. We deserve transparency from our government and justice that acts according to settled and traditional rules — even toward immigrants without full constitutional protections.

To the delight of small-government mavens, Ashcroft once averred, "We are here to make government smaller, not larger. We are here to uphold personal freedom and responsibility, not"construct an even bigger Nanny State to micro-manage our lives." Yet he has proven that his conservative side trumps any alleged libertarian leanings, even when the topic is completely unrelated to the war on terrorism.

He's spearheaded the Drug Enforcement Administration in actions against people in states that have passed liberal laws on medical marijuana and assisted suicide. Despite his years in state government talking up the blessings of federalism, Ashcroft has proven he barely meant a word of it.

As the Cato Institute's constitutional expert Roger Pilon puts it, "one can understand that the executive branch's job is to see that the laws be faithfully executed. At the same time we all know that discretion is a key element of the prosecutorial function." The attorney general's supporters try to rescue him from charges of hypocrisy by saying it's his job to enforce the law; but where he chooses to aim his resources is up to him, and his prosecutorial indiscretions mark him as a hypocrite on states' rights.

And elsewhere. Sen. Ashcroft was a firm defender of Internet privacy. Of the Clipper Chip and other surveillance features the government sought to build into computers and communications hardware, he said that "individuals will be outraged when they understand that the administration wants to hand the FBI access to your private communications." But Attorney General Ashcroft has enthusiastically pushed for and embraced USA PATRIOT Act provisions that give increased authority for warrantless Internet taps.

Of course, these ideas have long been in play. They're not Ashcroft's personal new wave of tyranny. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Lee Tien, a fan of Ashcroft's senatorial stance toward electronic privacy, says, a lot of it is the hat he's wearing as attorney general in a time of crisis. But he isn't wearing it well. Even in non-terrorism issues, Ashcroft shows a peculiar tone-deafness to First Amendment liberties. His Justice Department is behind the vindictive assault on journalist Vanessa Leggett, who had been jailed for nearly six months for not turning over notes relating to a murder to a grand jury, a civil contempt charge. Ashcroft's DOJ had threatened her with the possibility of a criminal contempt charge for the same thing — potentially adding years in jail to the months she's already languished. Then in January the DOJ went ahead and indicted the accused murderer in question on federal charges related to the same murder for which he's already been acquitted by the state of Texas — without using Leggett's evidence, and raising disturbing double jeopardy questions. (Leggett still fears being subpoenaed in that case.) If Ashcroft hasn't yet lived up to the worst fears of his foes, he seems more than willing to let civil liberties fall by the wayside if he thinks there's any excuse for it.

Reckless Pilot

There were areas, like abortion and civil rights, where his foes feared his personal beliefs would shape his law enforcement. So far, that seems not to be the case. Anywhere his beliefs might lead toward less enforcement of laws, they have had no effect at all. Just as the death-penalty-hating Janet Reno signed many a federal death warrant, Ashcroft will not be making his personal preferences the law of the land.

But he is known, as one conservative activist who has worked with DOJ officials under Ashcroft told me, for being "good in a chameleon-like way at representing his constituencies within conservatism." That's the best way to explain the one thing he's done as attorney general that has lived up to liberal fears — and libertarian hopes — about him: In a May 2001 letter to the National Rifle Association, he stated unequivocally that he considers the right to bear arms an individual one.

Having stated that, he has shown it in only two rather restrained ways. First, he reduced the time that records of gun background checks are kept from 90 days to one. Second, he extended one procedural courtesy to those mysterious, anonymous, locked-away aliens: He refused to check whether they had made gun purchases, agreeing with FBI lawyers that such an investigation went beyond the statutory purpose of the Brady Bill. As Eric Sterling of the Criminal Justice Policy Center says regarding Ashcroft's rhetoric on Second Amendment rights, "It doesn't clarify any federal policy and it doesn't give guidance to the ATF or FBI. It ends up being a political sop to a very powerful political interest."

So his pro-gun statements, as revolutionary as they may seem on the surface, merely maintain the status quo. His admirers are reinforced in their admiration, his enemies are reassured he is everything they hate him for, and the law basically stays the same.

For all his flaws and foibles, Attorney General Ashcroft has his hand on the control stick of the Department of Justice. He is a man whose upbringing and beliefs place him at odds with the dominant cultural elite, who dog and question his every move and decision. He's a man who has occupied many offices with little to show for it all except one huge, unique humiliation — after which he has been thrust into a position of great legal power in a time when the country is uniquely ready to roll over to authority. Given his Assemblies of God background and its concomitant sense of the divine in the mundane, it's impossible to think that (though he'd never admit it to a secular press) Ashcroft isn't feeling that it's part of God's providence that he's attorney general during a time of national crisis and panic. That it's an occasion that Ashcroft, the stern and firm father figure, should rise to.

Which may well be reason to worry. Constitutionalists view the attorney general's job as representing the people of the United States and their Constitution. Ashcroft seems to think differently. His policies to date show it, and so do some telling words. When asked to defend one of his actions as Missouri's attorney general during his confirmation hearing, he noted, "When the state is attacked, I think it's important to expect the attorney general — .to defend the state." This has been the alarming philosophy behind almost all of his post-9/11 decisions and pronouncements. His power as attorney general may well be, to him, as reckless and out of control as that Piper Cub he remembers so strongly from his childhood.

But this time, we're all stuck with him in the pilot's seat.