- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 16, 2001

The U.S. Senate opens its confirmation circus this morning, and some of the senators haven't had this much fun tormenting devout Christians since the Romans amused themselves throwing believers to the lions.

Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, one of the most partisan of the Democrats, suggested yesterday that John Ashcroft's faith might even have damaged his mind. Like, uh, anyone who really believes that Christ stuff must be a little nuts.

"It may be," says Mr. Schumer, "that his philosophical and ideological beliefs are so deep that even if he believes he is enforcing the law, he isn't."

Other Democrats, expecting to lose their fight to prevent Mr. Ashcroft from making it to the Bush Cabinet, warn darkly that even if he is confirmed he can expect further harassment. "If he says one thing at the hearings, and then does something else as attorney general," a Democratic aide hiding bravely behind the usual anonymity, told Reuters, "we'd call him back and ask him to explain why."

Mr. Ashcroft's tormentors continued yesterday to look for ringers to use against his candidacy. An "interfaith" group of somewhat vague ancestry, which appears to comprise the usual suspects accustomed to preaching to empty pews, urged the Senate Judiciary Committee, which opens hearings this morning, to ask Mr. Ashcroft the usual when-did-you-stop-beating-your-wife question: If confirmed, would he allow Christianity to be imposed on public institutions and sanction discrimination against other faiths.

"Religion in the public square must respect the rights of others to practice faith without imposing one ideology or belief," said the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, a Baptist preacher who is executive director of the Interfaith Alliance. As the attorney general, Mr. Ashcroft "would be charged with upholding and fully enforcing the constitutional rights and liberties of faith groups that he clearly judges to be wrong and in need of correction." Mr. Gaddy does not say which "faith groups" he thinks Mr. Ashcroft believes are "wrong" and "in need of correction." (Several bystanders were all but overcome by the stench of the sanctimony.)

Nor does Mr. Gaddy acknowledge that Mr. Ashcroft has, in the past, said emphatically that his own Pentecostal faith like Mr. Gaddy's professed Baptist faith teaches that it is wrong to impose his religious beliefs on others. Mr. Ashcroft's critics take care to pay tribute to his reputation as a man of conscience and character.

But religious divines like C. Welton Gaddy and his colleagues do not actually believe that Mr. Ashcroft intends to send federal agents armed with automatic rifles into private homes (that was Janet Reno's schtick) to make them sing "Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound" any more than the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton believe that Mr. Ashcroft will haul out the fire hoses and unleash the Dobermans to drive little black children back to the cotton fields.

Charles Evers, the brother of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, is right about John Ashcroft, and they know it. Mr. Evers, the former mayor of Fayette, Miss., sent letters yesterday on behalf of Mr. Ashcroft to two members of the Judiciary Committee, Teddy Kennedy of Massachusetts, who with Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts guards the pure blue flame of morality as Democrats understand it, and Orrin Hatch of Utah, the Republican chairman. "Senator Ashcroft is a man of tremendous experience and high integrity," Mr. Evers wrote. "The allegations of racism against him are not supported by facts. A look at Senator Ashcroft's record as governor of Missouri and as a United States senator shows that he voted to confirm 23 of 26 African American judicial appointments."

It's all in the game, and the game is to strangle the new administration in the cradle as the overture to '04. A key handful of the Democratic senators, including but not limited to the junior senator from New York, are already candidates, and the first opportunity to put down markers arrives this morning.

The Democrats not only understand knee-in-the-groin, thumb-in-the-eye politics, but relish it, like the cowboy who rides into town on Saturday night looking for a saloon to break up and goes home disappointed if neither eye has been blackened. It's John Ashcroft's luck, if he will pardon the metaphor, that the Democrats elected his saloon.

George W. knows this, and he must hope that all his men (and women) understand this, too. No matter how rough the fight gets, no matter how tempting it may be to retreat into Republican tradition and turn tail, they cannot even for a nanosecond entertain thoughts of pulling the plug. Not this time, or they're all dead.

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