Civil Liberties



The Amazing Ashcroft

Brian Doherty's "Ashcroft's Power Grab" (June) seemed more like an assault on the attorney general's character than an examination of whether he has compromised civil rights. I agree that the USA PATRIOT Act and the ever expanding police state is cause for grave concern. But Doherty doesn't offer a better solution.

Our nation's security has been penetrated. We now have two options. The first is to simply pick up the pieces each time everything blows up. The second is to take some pre-emptive action and try to deny the bad guys their opportunity. The best measures would be adequate tracking of foreign nationals in the U.S., maintenance of military and intelligence capabilities, and a more solid commitment to national defense. Why didn't Doherty write about this?

Farrar Puckett
Manzanita, OR

If John Ashcroft were a true conservative, he'd respect states' rights and limited powers for the federal government. Yet ever since taking office, he's used his authority to increase those powers. In doing so, he has revealed conservatives' hypocrisy. They say they want to limit government and respect personal liberty but instead they act to increase government's power to advance their own narrow agenda.

Stephen V. Gilmore
Charlotte, NC

The violence John Ashcroft has done to the Constitution and to civil liberties—and the further potential danger he poses to both—cry out for illumination and coherent discussion. Sadly, Brian Doherty's sophomoric screed, which focuses almost entirely on the irrelevant topic of the unpopularity of Ashcroft's religious beliefs in leftist media and academic circles, is neither illuminating nor terribly coherent.

Robert J. Stepp
Monument, CO

I have come to expect articles in reason to be of the highest quality. Imagine my surprise when I read "Ashcroft's Power Grab." I expected an erudite analysis of the legal decisions Ashcroft made that are unpopular with libertarians. What I got was a misrepresentation of facts, personal slander that in places degenerated into hysterics, slippery logic, and a distinct lack of hard information.

Doherty's summary of Ashcroft's career until he became attorney general is particularly deceptive. He went from a virtual nobody to the highest legal officer in the land, and Doherty thinks he's a loser?

Mark Alliksaar
Scarborough, Ontario

l could perhaps tolerate a little bit of mixed-up editorial belching, but gee whiz, Brian Doherty: "cornpone hokum" in Branson, Missouri, that "difficult little state." As a native of the area (not an Assembler), I have to defend it.

That quadrant of Missouri, you should know, is the Earth's hottest spot of devotion to duty-honor-God-and-country (choose your order). That may seem hopelessly naive to those enthralled with the Upper East Side, but consider who is more likely to populate the Special Forces. And nowhere is devotion to individual liberty stronger—it's the core of the Ozarker's DNA.

Jack Robinson
Via e-mail

Brian Doherty replies: In response to Robert Stepp, my piece was intended as a profile of the attorney general's career, not merely a discussion of his civil liberties record (though that was covered too, particularly in the sidebar). In discussing Ashcroft's career and character and considering what to expect from him in the future, his religion and the strongly negative reaction of many highly influential Americans to his beliefs are important. Showing respect for a public figure's beliefs does not mean one has to ignore them.

To Mark Alliksaar: My negative assessment of Ashcroft's career is certainly contrarian, but I stand behind it. To understand that assessment, one must look beyond his résumé and consider his defeats—in particular, his uniquely embarrassing loss to a dead man—as well as his victories. You also need to consider what he managed to do with his victories, which is essentially nothing.

And to Jack Robinson: If Missouri is the land of "devotion to individual liberty," then I fear the attorney general is not a true-blue son of his home state.

Election Spoils

I am writing to identify myself as the main source for Matt Welch's behind-the-scenes report on election night in his article "Ashcroft's Power GrabSpeaking Lies to Power: Ralph Nader Fudges the Truth Just Like a Real Politician" (May). There are serious inaccuracies in this report, a keystone for Welch's whole story since it is the main piece of new information he presents.

The most serious error is the claim that I (and Aaron Smith, who was assisting me that evening) were acting "on the orders of campaign headquarters." If anything, the problem was that we had too little guidance from higher-ups in the Nader organization. In particular, we were never asked for the poll calculations that Welch considered deceptive. I state unequivocally that the "manipulation" discussed by Welch was made entirely on my own initiative.

It is also patently untrue that I was engaged in "a far more flagrant manipulation of the truth" than allegedly choosing poll numbers selectively. In fact, what I discussed doing, in Welch's presence, was the almost identical exercise of selectively choosing poll numbers for our calculations, a practice which I think is defensible in a situation where other players are expected to engage in similar manipulations. It is important to note that, although I did discuss the possibility of choosing poll data to spin the numbers in one direction or another, the campaign never released calculations based on hand-picked poll numbers. The real point, however, is not that what we did is defensible but that it was grossly exaggerated by Welch.

There are other important errors in the paragraph. We were not "frantically devising multiple formulas" to prove that Nader did not spoil the election, "no matter what." There was only one "spoiling" formula, which was constructed with scrupulous honesty, and this formula did show that Nader votes cost Gore the election. Still, it is an open question how different the election might have been without Nader.

I have no reason to doubt that Welch told me what was going on was "shocking," and that I failed to clear up his misunderstandings at that time. Had I known that this article would be the result, I might have taken more time. It is a shame that Welch did not think to contact me before publishing his seriously flawed account.

Jonathan Dushoff
Via e-mail

Matt Welch replies: I have a lot of respect for Jonathan Dushoff—he was the most math-oriented person I encountered on the Nader campaign—so his remarks should be taken seriously. He is right, for instance, to say that I exaggerated when I said his formula was devised to show Nader didn't spoil the election "no matter what." I will also grant him the point that it was a single (albeit flexible) formula, rather than several. My bad on both counts.

Dushoff denies vehemently that "choosing poll data to spin the numbers" (his words) represents a "flagrant manipulation of the truth" (mine). I respectfully beg to differ, especially given the context of a candidate, campaign, and movement that wrapped themselves in the conceit of "truth telling." Dushoff says it's defensible in a situation (the election) where such manipulations are "expected." But Nader's campaign biography was subtitled "How to Tell the Truth and Still Run for President"; my subtitle underscores the point that "Ralph Nader Fudges the Truth Just Like a Real Politician."

Dushoff and I have very different memories and notes from our election night conversation. Though it flatly contradicts my reporting of the time, his assertion that he acted alone in contemplating interpretative electoral data should also be taken seriously. It also has zero effect on my thesis: Ralph Nader, despite his rhetoric of purity, uses facts selectively and dishonestly to suit his needs.

Correction: R.J. Pliskow, M.D., photographed author Tevi Troy for "POTUS and the Brain" (August).