- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 6, 2002

Courthouses depress me. Especially if they have mottos engraved around their sides uplifting sentiments like Equal Justice Under Law. Someday somebody is going to engrave a legend around a courthouse that says: O Justice, What Crimes Are Committed In Thy Name.

Law is to justice as attorney generals are to real ones.

This one bright Wednesday afternoon in Little Rock, the Spanish-tiled, neo-classical federal courthouse looks bubble-wrapped. There are cops on every corner. They smile and nod as they check out the occasional pedestrian. No parking is allowed around the building today. The attorney general of the United States is passing through, and the now usual precautions are being taken.

Welcome to the new, post-Timothy McVeigh, post-September 11 America. Six months into the War on Terror, a strange mix of heightened vigilance and lowered awareness has set in. How to describe it? Call it a sense of routine emergency.

To read his press clips, you would think John Ashcroft was the danger that needed watching. This administration has its critics, and all administrations need them, but the criticism directed at this one member of the Cabinet has a special quality about it: visceral, instinctive, at times surreal. Before and after September 11, from his confirmation hearing right through this strange period of abnormal normalcy, he's the one who really sets 'em off.

Think I exaggerate? According to the New York Times' William Safire, the president was attempting to seize "what amounts to dictatorial power" at the behest of his "frustrated and panic-stricken attorney general." And Bill Safire is a conservative.

The spirit of liberty, said Learned Hand, is the spirit that is not too sure it is right. But his more fervid critics sound as sure of themselves as they accuse John Ashcroft of being.

This attorney general has been the subject of more urban myths than the crocodiles in New York's sewers.

The wildest story may have been the one spread by Andrew Tobias of the Democratic National Committee about calico cats and the attorney general's supposed aversion thereto because of his belief that they're signs of the devil all of which, from first to last, is as phony as it sounds. That didn't stop the New York Times from retelling it.

Besides the remarkable powers of imagination these stories demonstrate, there is something else at work here an eager willingness to believe anything nasty about the man. Anything. The kind of invective employed against John Ashcroft can't be explained by ordinary partisanship.

I have my own theory about why John Ashcroft inspires such enmity. I think a good part of it is religious prejudice. The man is likely to break out in a hymn in the middle of a speech, he doesn't hide his convictions, he presides over morning prayers in his office (they're strictly voluntary), and he's one of those people who's likely to make a biblical reference right in the middle of a conversation. His critics can never know when he's going to have the bad taste to mention God, and the suspense puts them on edge.

His religiosity upsets John Ashcroft's critics. You can tell by the way they use the term Religious Right. They pronounce it like an anathema, the way an anti-Semite would say Jew.

There's something else his critics can't stand about John Ashcroft. He's smart. And he's a good lawyer. Nothing angers those accustomed to thinking of their politics as the only intelligent kind like finding an antagonist who thinks. They would rather dismiss John Ashcroft as some kind of country bumpkin from Missouri (like Harry Truman?) rather than actually wrestle with his ideas. It's so much easier to condescend to him, to make up stories about his Puritanism, his felinophobia, his general scariness.

Much like Harry Truman, John Ashcroft has found the job he signed on for in Washington completely changed by a single event, and all his expectations confounded. Yet he continues to grow in the job without changing his character or moderating his beliefs.

If you can catch him when he doesn't sound like a press release (he was actually in town to say the usual things about staying on guard against terrorism) you can have a stimulating conversation, including a disagreement or two.

For example, I brought up something the attorney general had said in the aftermath of September 11 that still rankles: "To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty," he warned, "my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists ." That comes dangerously close to accusing anyone who criticizes his policies of aiding the enemy. That sounds less like Harry Truman than Joe McCarthy. Sometimes this attorney general hands his critics ammunition.

Doubtless he would have a cogent response to my criticism. John Ashcroft is nothing if not a skilled and even thoughtful advocate. He actually seemed to enjoy wandering off-message for a few minutes and thinking aloud. But then he had to hurry off, having some other things to attend to like guarding against the next terrorist attack. Whatever our differences, this was one time I left a courthouse with more confidence in the law than when I had arrived.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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