They knew him to be more ideological than intellectual, more judgmental than judicious, and altogether more small-minded than what might be hoped for in a candidate for the top domestic Cabinet post.
Yet Mr. Ashcroft has not merely lived up to his colleagues' expectations during his first two years in office, he has wildly exceeded them, as documented in a recent profile by The Sun's Michael Hill.
He is the nation's chief law enforcement officer, but seems intent on bending both the law and the Constitution to his will.
He has run roughshod over his own federal prosecutors, directing them to seek the death penalty in specific cases rather than use their own discretion.
He has ignored his promise not to impose his religious views on others by seeking to overturn the assisted suicide law in Oregon and by prosecuting Californians who participate in a state program authorizing the medical use of marijuana.
Worst of all, he has taken advantage of the fearful American climate in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks to chip mightily away at American freedoms.
He bullied Congress into passing the so-called USA Patriot Act, which makes it easier to wiretap conversations and track Internet activity of private citizens and to detain potential suspects or witnesses.
Congress balked at another Ashcroft program that encouraged Americans to spy on one another. But now he's coming back asking for the power to make secret arrests, strip citizenship from those with certain political associations and further invade the privacy of Americans.
He all but charges treason against those who raise civil liberty concerns. Such critics give "ammunition to America's enemies and pause to America's friends" and "erode our national unity and diminish our resolve," Mr. Ashcroft said. He contended that complaints about his heavy-handed investigative methods are designed to "scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty."
But he's the one who is truly scary.
Mr. Ashcroft's one term in the Senate had been so underwhelming, he was defeated for re-election by a dead man. Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan was leading in the race when his plane crashed, and voters chose to take their chances with his widow rather than give Mr. Ashcroft another term. His most memorable Senate act was a successful 11th-hour floor fight against an African-American judicial nominee whom Mr. Ashcroft had earlier backed in committee.
Senator Ashcroft charged during the debate that state Judge Ronnie White was "soft on crime," with a "tremendous bent toward criminal activity." Judge White protested that he had been smeared without so much as an interview with the senator. Senate Democrats said Mr. Ashcroft's sudden reversal looked like a campaign tactic to attack Governor Carnahan, who had named Judge White to the state bench.
In a rare breach of Senate courtesy, 42 of the former senator's colleagues voted against his appointment as attorney general-fearing, correctly, that the saga of Judge White would prove a cautionary tale.
The Bush administration wisely yanked Mr. Ashcroft into the shadows last year after he showboated the arrest of Jose Padilla, making inflated claims about the terrorist intentions of the Chicago street criminal.
Now it's time to retire Mr. Ashcroft from government, as Missouri voters intended.