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Ashcroft Rising

Since Septemer 11 the attorney general has made his presence felt.

12:00 AM, Oct 18, 2001 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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AMONG THE MANY THINGS that have changed since September 11 is the public profile of Attorney General John Ashcroft. It's a lot bigger now. You can get an idea of how much bigger by visiting the Justice Department's website. It lists all of the A.G.'s public appearances going back to when he was confirmed in February. There are 50 in all but 19 have been recorded since September 11.

Most of the A.G.'s post-September 11 appearances have taken the form of press briefings. Often he's been joined by FBI director Robert Mueller. But he's also met the press with HHS secretary Tommy Thompson in tow, and at one briefing he had the president as well as Secretary of State Colin Powell standing alongside him. And he's testified in Congress on the anti-terrorism legislation.

The Sunday talk shows have been calling more than ever before, and Ashcroft has been obliging. Ashcroft has appeared on "Fox News Sunday," NBC's "Meet the Press," ABC's "This Week," CBS's "Face the Nation," and CNN's "Late Edition" and "Larry King Live."

Of course, it's not hard to explain why the A.G.'s public profile is so much bigger. There's a lot to investigate, and--note Ashcroft's frequent warnings about the terrorism likely to happen--a lot to prevent. The Justice Department is home to the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service--the very agencies needed in these endeavors. It's also the world's largest law firm, whose expertise in the law is routinely drawn on when, as now, Congress goes about changing certain parts of the U.S. Code. Inasmuch as Ashcroft is the one in charge of the department and its agencies, you could say he is playing the leading role in the non-military part of the war on terrorism. Mindy Tucker, the Justice Department's director of public affairs, estimates that Ashcroft is spending at least 90 percent of his time on it.

That could decrease, but probably not by much--at least not anytime soon. Which is why no one should think the A.G. will become any less visible in the months ahead. He'll continue to provide updates on what the department is doing, says Tucker, who adds that part of his purpose in meeting the press is to "reassure" a nervous public.

The A.G.'s larger public profile is a sign of the extent to which September 11 has made the Bush presidency less centered on White House aides and more reliant on key cabinet officials, Ashcroft especially. No one could have predicted this before September 11.

What is striking about this change of events, in Ashcroft's case, is how distant the controversies that swirled around his nomination just 10 months ago now seem. Some observers theorized that the hazing he experienced at the hands of Democrats produced an inhibiting effect, making him less forceful and less visible. However you judge that, Ashcroft is hardly obscure these days. Indeed, I just got an e-mail from the Justice Department's press office advising of yet another A.G. press appearance.

Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard.