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The "Controversial" Ashcroft

The New York Times laments how "controversial" John Ashcroft was as attorney general. But who fomented the controversy?

2:45 PM, Nov 10, 2004 • By S.T. KARNICK
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THE NEW YORK TIMES analysis of Attorney General John Ashcroft's resignation, published today, reflects the general press coverage from the left, describing him, somewhat hyperbolically, as "one of the most powerful and divisive figures ever to serve as the nation's top law enforcement official."

The article's title, "Antiterror Campaign Made Ashcroft a Lightning Rod," sets the tone for the piece and establishes the angle from which the New York Times explicitly wants historians to judge Ashcroft: as an overly aggressive--perhaps even reckless--partisan conservative Christian who used the September 11 attacks as a pretext for casting aside much of the Bill of Rights (which his bizarre religious beliefs had already inclined him to do).

The article specifically instructs historians on how they should view Ashcroft: "it is his legacy in the fight against terrorism that is sure to be dissected by historians for generations."

What this "analysis" leaves out, of course, is the fact that the controversy to which the Times alludes was largely a creation of that newspaper and its political allies, who disagreed strongly with the entire thrust of Ashcroft's policies. However much one might disagree with sundry details of Ashcroft's actions as attorney general, it is futile to pretend that he was some sort of radical madman. His nation, after all, was at war with an exceptionally shifty and amorphous enemy. Some very strong disagreements on the appropriate means of dealing with such a threat are only to be expected.

In its attempt to place the onus of any controversy on Ashcroft, the Times argues that "Mr. Ashcroft himself set the tone for the division less than three months after the attacks when he said before a Senate panel: 'To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve.'''

Shortly thereafter, however, the article notes the following: "Mr. Ashcroft's selection by Mr. Bush, followed by a bruising confirmation battle in the Senate, was regarded as a plum for the president's conservative religious base."

This statement in itself shows that the New York Times is fabricating the notion that it was Ashcroft's response to the September 11 attacks that caused all the controversy: if "Ashcroft himself set the tone for the division less than three months after the attacks," why on earth would there have been "a bruising confirmation battle in the Senate" in the previous year?

The obvious reason is that the New York Times and the rest of the left despised Ashcroft from the start for his openly religious views.

It is important to note, in addition, that the "divisive" statement the paper quotes is in fact a perfectly legitimate claim and one that should hardly incite controversy. There were, after all, many people making grotesquely exaggerated claims about what the Justice Department was doing or planning to do in response to the September 11 attacks, and such claims would indeed be likely to aid the terrorists by eroding the national unity and diminishing the nation's resolve.

That such exaggerated claims were often quoted in the New York Times and indeed even issued by their editorial section is something for historians of the Times, not of Ashcroft, to ponder.

The rest of the Times "analysis" is a predictable collection of slams against the former attorney general, with the facts sometimes correct but the language always slanted in the most unsympathetic terms, as in the following: "Moreover, the Justice Department's stance on the treatment of detainees and the jailing of 'enemy combatants' drew criticism from both sides of the ideological spectrum, with the Supreme Court declaring earlier this year that 'a state of war is not a blank check for the president.'"

By citing "both sides," of course, the author means people on both the far left and far right who opposed the war on terror and the war in Iraq. The notion that political radicals of very different stripes would equally oppose the actions of a conservative attorney general would strike only the New York Times as surprising.

A little honesty now at the end of Ashcroft's tenure would go a long way toward restoring the credibility of the New York Times. That, however, seems to have been too much to hope for.

S. T. Karnick is a senior editor at the Heartland Institute, an associate fellow at the Sagamore Institute, and coeditor of The Reform Club.