- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 11, 2001

Confounding foes and fans alike, Attorney General John Ashcroft's steadfastness before and in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks has shown him to truly be a "man for all seasons." In a moment of great prescience, calling him "a man of great integrity, a man of great judgment and a man who knows the law," President Bush announced his decision to nominate Mr. Ashcroft to serve as attorney general of the United States last year.

Immediately, the overheated rhetoric of what many of us hope is a bygone era began. Ralph Neas of People for the American Way claimed that Mr. Ashcroft was "the antithesis of the person required to lead the Department of Justice. With the possible exception of Sen. Jesse Helms, I do not believe anyone in the United States Senate has a more abysmal record on civil rights and civil liberties." Perhaps more improbably, other critics charged that Mr. Ashcroft's nomination was a particular poke in the eye to black Americans. And if that wasn't sufficient, ominous voices suggested that Mr. Ashcroft's lifelong membership in the Assemblies of God, the nation's second-largest protestant denomination, was somehow incompatible with service in the Justice Department.

Now, as Mr. Ashcroft oversees the largest criminal probe in U.S. history involving 4,000 FBI agents and untold thousands of other investigators, the steadfastness and steely eyed resolve that Mr. Bush must have recognized is becoming clear to the rest of us. Mr. Ashcroft has jumped into this crisis feet first, as few others have, understanding that while doing so he'll earn all the more responsibility for failure if he doesn't succeed. Remarkably, Mr. Ashcroft has walked the tightrope of assuring us that the federal law-enforcement community is fully up to the task of this crisis while simultaneously keeping Americans alert and prepared.

And it's working. Sen. Dick Durbin who opposed Mr. Ashcroft's nomination praised Mr. Ashcroft's handling of the investigation. "I give him very high marks for his work as attorney general since Sept. 11. I think he has been very visible, very aggressive and very responsive." Other critics have either been silenced or joined in the praise.

Make no mistake, the challenges in this investigation are seemingly overwhelming. Tracking down within the United States those who aided and abetted the terrorist assault while not trampling on civil liberties is no simple task. In fact, one could argue that in this time of emergency, the scale should just simply be weighted entirely on the side of law enforcement. Unlike the liberal maven, Earl Warren, whose shameful participation in the internment of Japanese Americans forever stains his reputation, Mr. Ashcroft hasn't yielded to this temptation. "We will propose no change in the law that damages constitutional rights and protections that Americans hold dear," Mr. Ashcroft proclaims.

And he and the Justice Department have shown a strong willingness to work with congressmen and senators to strike the right balance in the anti-terrorism legislation that Congress is considering. Reassuringly Mr. Ashcroft promises, "Just as we have provided law enforcement with the tools they need to fight drug trafficking and organized crime without violating the rights and freedoms of Americans, we are committed to meeting the challenge of terrorism with the same careful respect for the Constitution."

This then is John Ashcroft steadfast and true, eschewing simplistic solutions. Just last spring he reaffirmed the common sense notion that liberty and freedom were essential ingredients to finding solutions for school shootings. "If I were one to believe that the only solutions were governmental, I might be willing to trade First Amendment rights to improve the culture," said Mr. Ashcroft. "Frankly, I don't think trading First Amendment rights is a way to improve culture."

And proving that he is a man of integrity, he has kept his promises to enforce the law, not remake it in his own image. During his first six months in office, Mr. Ashcroft sought to uphold the federal law protecting clinics from abortion opponents by dispatching a security detail to provide protection for the staff at an abortion clinic in Kansas.

His Justice Department also recently defended a Department of Transportation affirmative action program. Even the American Civil Liberties Union praised the attorney general's claim that racial profiling was unconstitutional. "Racial profiling is an area of special concern to me," says Mr. Ashcroft. "It is totally unacceptable and un-American to think that there would be a problem of 'driving while Hispanic' or 'driving while African-American' in America. It simply is unacceptable. I think it violates the Constitution." Mr. Ashcroft has clung to this view even while sadly upwards of 70 percent of blacks now say they approve of racial profiling of Arabs and Muslims.

What does the man who leads daily prayer and Bible study sessions at the Justice Department know that keeps him steady and true during this time of crisis? John Ashcroft, like Thomas More in Robert Bolt's famous play, "A Man for All Seasons," understands that not even when seeking out the devil himself should we throw away the rule of law and our principles. Watching from the sidelines as a man stands up for his beliefs is admirable and reassuring. In a cynical era, it's inspiring to see someone demonstrate that public service is truly a noble undertaking. Perhaps one unexpected consequence of the tragic attacks on American soil is that men like John Ashcroft remind us that being principled and statesmanlike aren't qualities of a bygone era, but instead they are timeless.

Horace Cooper is a senior fellow at the Center for New Black Leadership.

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