- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 17, 2001


John Ashcroft struck back firmly but respectfully at his liberal Democratic critics yesterday, defusing their attacks on his nomination to be attorney general.

In what has become President-elect George W. Bush's first big political test of leadership in the new Congress, Mr. Ashcroft used his record as attorney general, governor and senator to respond to the litany of charges the Democratic left has made against him for the past two weeks on racial, gun-control, abortion and civil rights issues.

After listening to a lengthy barrage of charges made by Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats in their opening statements, Mr. Ashcroft read a statement carefully crafted to deflect the issues raised against him.

First and foremost, he told the panel that he would not let his own strongly held socially conservative views affect his responsibility to uphold the laws of the land, such as legalized abortion, even though he personally disagrees with them.

"I understand that being attorney general means enforcing the laws as they are written, not enforcing my own personal preferences," he said.

While Mr. Ashcroft made no apologies for his strongly held views against abortion, gun control and racial preferences, he went out of his way to assure the committee that he would support civil rights laws and other protections against racial discrimination and injustice.

"No American should fear being stopped by police because of their skin color," he said. "No American should be turned away from a polling place because of the color of his skin or the sound of his name."

"From racial profiling to unwarranted strip searches, the list of injustices in America today is long. Injustice in America against any individual must not stand," he told the panel.

His opening statement was tailored to forcefully respond to the mounting charges by his liberal critics in and out of Congress who have tried to make him out to be a racist, right-wing extremist who was outside of the political mainstream.

But that image was rebutted not only by his impassioned statement pledging "strict enforcement of the rule of law," but by the senators who introduced him to the committee, including Sen. Jean Carnahan, Missouri Democrat, the widow of former Gov. Mel Carnahan who defeated Mr. Ashcroft last year.

However, after the opening statements and the formalities were dispensed with, the political grilling began in earnest. Both Sens. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, and Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, quickly "zeroed in" on Mr. Ashcroft's earlier opposition to President Clinton's nomination of a black American to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and his civil rights record as state attorney general.

Armed with a thick briefing book on the positions he has taken over his long political career, Mr. Ashcroft was fully prepared to respond in detail to each accusation, including the text of his vetoes of two voter registration bills he rejected as governor.

But it was his overall record on racial and civil rights issues that Bush advisers wanted Mr. Ashcroft to emphasize in his testimony, and he recited that record to the committee in some detail. He had voted for 90 percent of Mr. Clinton's nominees as senator and had supported 26 out of 27 of his judicial nominees who were black.

Mr. Ashcroft also pointed out that he had signed the law making Martin Luther King's birthday a state holiday, that he had supported black state colleges and, as governor, had appointed a number of blacks including the first ever named to the state's Court of Appeals in Kansas City.

While Mr. Kennedy sharply questioned Mr. Ashcroft's handling of desegregation and busing cases when he was state attorney general, the former senator calmly defended his actions and said that he never opposed a court order after the case had been litigated.

"In all of those cases, when a court order was made, I followed the order," he said.

At one point, when an impatient Mr. Kennedy kept interrupting his answers, Mr. Ashcroft told him, "It takes longer to answer the charges than to make them."

Nevertheless, despite the tough questioning, observers said they thought Mr. Ashcroft emerged from his first day of hearings in pretty good shape.

"I thought he did well," said Gary Bauer, the social conservative leader who is a staunch ally of Mr. Ashcroft. "What is so striking, though, is the go-for-the-throat, adversarial approach of some of the usual suspects like Kennedy. It totally exposes the emptiness of the chance of bipartisanship in the coming months."

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