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The redemption of John Ashcroft

Justice SystemGovernmentNational GovernmentWhite House

HERE'S MORE reason to love democracy: In the Soviet Union, you had to be thrown into internal exile before you could be rehabilitated. In Red China, you were paraded around town with a dunce cap on your head. But to be redeemed in Washington, all you need to do is obstruct the political villain du jour.

Former Deputy Atty. Gen. James Comey's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee electrified Washington last week. With almost cinematic drama, Comey recounted a story of grasping Bush administration officials trying to badger then-Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft — in his hospital bed — into authorizing sweeping domestic surveillance powers that had already been determined to be unlawful by the Justice Department. Ashcroft strained to lift his head off the pillow and castigate then-White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales and Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. for trying an end-run around Comey, the acting attorney general. Ashcroft and his aides reportedly threatened mass resignations if the White House didn't address their concerns. President Bush apparently did that, defusing the crisis.

It now appears that the substance of the disagreement was perhaps a bit less apocalyptic than Comey and Democrats have painted it, but that's beside the point. The new villain in Washington is Gonzales, the current attorney general, and so any principled opponent to Gonzales' alleged abuse of powers must have something going for him. Even the previous villain, Ashcroft.

In 2001, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) led the Democratic opposition to Ashcroft's nomination, casting Ashcroft as a terrifying religious zealot lacking the integrity, temperament and (wink) "racial sensitivity" to be attorney general. Last week, Schumer saluted Ashcroft's "fidelity to the rule of law." The liberal website Wonkette praised Ashcroft's "heroic stand." The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan, who has become a Jeremiah about the dangers of the Christian right that Ashcroft has long personified, dubbed him "an American hero." Ashcroft's rehabilitation was sealed by a Washington Post story about how the former AG was often the only firebreak against the Bush White House. Even Ralph Neas, the hyper-partisan president of People for the American Way, managed to mumble to the Washington Post that Gonzales had managed to make Ashcroft look like a "defender of the Constitution."

Full disclosure: My wife was formerly a senior aide and speechwriter for both Ashcroft and Gonzales, so I always took a particularly keen interest in both attorneys general. It is nice to see conventional wisdom come around to my long-standing and oft-stated view that Gonzales is a subpar hack and Ashcroft a man of integrity. Don't get me wrong; I don't think I'd much like to have a beer with either of them (certainly not with Ashcroft because I hate to drink alone). But, as my wife, Jessica Gavora, puts it, "The one thing you always knew about John Ashcroft was that he's not for sale."

Of course, Ashcroft's rehab is a byproduct of partisan opportunism. Gonzales is trailing blood in shark-infested political waters, and, by telling this story, Comey has thrown the flailing AG an anchor instead of a life preserver.

Still, there are some interesting lessons here. First, the attacks on Ashcroft were always grotesquely unfair. As a presidential candidate, Howard Dean — who often decries how Republicans question the patriotism of Democrats — saw nothing wrong with flatly asserting that Ashcroft was "not a patriot. He's a direct descendant of Joseph McCarthy." A second lesson is that the Christian scare that has been spooking liberals often amounts to mass paranoia. In 2001, USA Today's former Supreme Court reporter asked, sincerely, "Can a deeply religious person be attorney general?" The bigotry of the question should be self-evident, and so should the answer. In almost every way, Ashcroft was the Bush administration's most exemplary Cabinet official. An undisputed hawk on the war on terror, he was nonetheless immune to the groupthink that has plagued the Bush White House. From the sound of it, that independence improved administration policymaking.

It also improved Bush politically. In his first term, Ashcroft was the face of the Christian right in the Bush administration, serving as a valuable lightning rod, making Bush seem, and perhaps be, more reasonable. In his second term, Bush picked Gonzales, a quintessential yes man, to replace Ashcroft's useful contrary voice. This only reinforced the bunker mentality that has so ill-served the White House.

Lastly, history — even freshly minted history — has a remarkable way of erasing conventional wisdom. If in 2002 I had written that by 2007 Democrats would be singing Ashcroft's praises as a man of integrity and sound temperament, I would have been laughed out of the room. Right now, predicting a rehabilitation of George W. Bush elicits similar guffaws from the crowd. But the fact is if Ashcroft can be rehabilitated, anyone can.


jgoldberg@latimescolumnists.com

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