- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 6, 2002

A front-page story in the New York Times can generate significant political aftershocks. The recent Neil Lewis piece on Attorney General John Ashcroft is no exception. It is a perfect example of how there are often stories behind the story; that what appears in print is often only part of the story, if part of the story at all.

The story asserted some on the so-called "religious right" are concerned about Mr. Ashcroft's policies, quoting several conservatives, including myself. It is clear to me that the bulk of the story came from leaks that occurred at the White House. The complaints cited in the article have little if anything to do with our concerns. Instead, it has all the earmarks of a campaign to dump the attorney general.

It is true that I have some significant reservations about Mr. Ashcroft's policies, but in no way do I want to be connected with a campaign to dump him.

The New York Times reporter never asked me about the supposed unhappiness with the attorney general. His story read as if he had been working on several stories and strung them together.

The Weekly Standard, a weekly magazine of news and opinion, then took it upon itself to publish a piece suggesting the only conservatives concerned about Mr. Ashcroft were Grover Norquist, the conservative activist who heads Americans for Tax Reform, and myself. Then, the author of the piece went on to claim I could not be a spokesman for religious conservatives.

Perhaps this opinion rises out of my having made a sharp rebuke of Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol's assertion that President George W. Bush was engaging in appeasement when one of our planes went down over China.

Or perhaps it comes from my desire and that of the Free Congress Foundation, of which I am president to raise questions about the war on drugs at a congressional hearing where the nomination of John Walters to become the nation's drug czar was being considered. Some, including writers at that magazine, seem to view the fact of asking questions about the war on drugs as equivalent to all-out opposition to it. It never was, but the Weekly Standard has apparently held this grudge against the Free Congress Foundation and myself ever since.

The fact is that the concern about Mr. Ashcroft's policies extends beyond just Grover Norquist and Paul Weyrich.

Recently, I composed a letter to Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. The letter congratulated him for his legislative oversight over the proposed new FBI guidelines on the domestic front.

Mr. Sensenbrenner had been upset that the attorney general and FBI Director Robert Mueller had issued these guidelines without prior consultation with the Congress.

He expressed the same concerns that the Free Congress Foundation had voiced about the new policies and, when I broached the topic at the Wednesday policy lunch I chair, the representative of more than 30 membership organizations were willing to sign on. One of those signers was a representative of the Family Research Council, now Exhibit A in the Weekly Standard's case that the criticism of Mr. Ashcroft is limited to myself and Mr. Norquist, not other religious conservatives. (See freecongress.org/media/020620bltr.asp on the worldwide web for a copy of the letter.)

Since the New York Times article appeared, another group has weighed in with its concerns. Pat Trueman of the American Family Association says his group has problems with the attorney general because there have been very few prosecutions of child pornography cases.

When I told the New York Times that conservative organizations have very serious concerns about the attorney general, it was based on that letter. If it were my opinion alone, I never would have represented it as having been held by others. The Standard's writer never had the decency or even just the simple commitment to getting the story right to call me on the phone to ask if I had been just spouting my opinion or something more substantial lay behind what I had said. Mr. Norquist told me the Standard's writer never called him either.

What in the long-run is likely to prove to be a minor flap is very instructive in how journalism in Washington is changing. Rather than demonstrate a commitment to getting the facts straight first, writers simply write opinions as if they are facts. That the Standard is an opinion journal does not absolve it of the responsibility to make sure its opinions are backed up by an accurate portrayal of the underlying facts.

As for Mr. Ashcroft, the New York Times story, noting the discontent with his policies among the party's conservative base, appeared to have information based on leaks from the White House. Much of the story had nothing to do with our real concerns in how the long-term impact of the actions he has taken are likely to lead to an erosion of our civil liberties; rather it read like several stories crammed into one.

Let me make clear to the public and any journalists who want to do follow-up stories to the New York Times story: Speaking for myself, right now I do not want to be part of any campaign to dump the attorney general.

My concern is not what Mr. Ashcroft and President Bush will do with the new powers granted the government to conduct the war on terrorism. It is what a future attorney general like Hillary Clinton could easily do with those powers. This is not a trivial matter and it is a view widely shared by social conservatives. The reporting about our discontent whether by the New York Times or the Weekly Standard ought to reflect that.


Paul M. Weyrich is president of the Free Congress Foundation, a research and education foundation. Distributed by United Press International.


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