IT IS SOMETHING to behold, this collection of extremists, bullies, and character assassins that has lined up to destroy John Ashcroft's reputation. Not since the defeat of Robert Bork, the most distinguished Supreme Court nominee of the last quarter-century, has any presidential appointee been assaulted by a mob as big and brutal as this one.
Just look at them. Here is Handgun Control Inc., labeling Ashcroft an intellectual bedfellow of "convicted mass-murderer Timothy McVeigh." Over there is Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way, likening him to the "virulent segregationists" of the 1950s. Ashcroft, chimes in the NAACP's Kweisi Mfume, "has consistently opposed civil rights." At the Los Angeles Times, an editorial page cartoon depicts him as a member of the Klan, complete with white robe and hood. And did you know he hates women too? Yep: Planned Parenthood's Gloria Feldt calls Ashcroft "a clear and present danger to American women."
Joe McCarthy himself was never this McCarthyite.
Republicans never see the lynch mobs coming, in part because they aren't in the habit of lynching Democratic nominees. (Not one GOP senator, for example, voted against confirming Janet Reno, though she was easily the most left-wing choice for attorney general since Ramsay Clark.) If they did, they might be able to avoid them.
Consider how different things could have been. It is hard to imagine that cries of "Racist!" would be filling the air if George W. Bush had selected this notable member of Congress and former governor to head the Justice Department:
- As governor, he was one of the first to sign a law making Martin Luther King's birthday a state holiday.
- He signed his state's first hate-crimes law in 1988.
- When Lincoln University, a historically black institution, was in financial distress, he led the effort to save it.
- He named eight black judges to the state bench -- more than any other governor of his state -- including the first black to sit on the court of appeals.
- Of the 28 black judges appointed by President Clinton to the federal bench, he voted to confirm 26.
- His wife teaches law at Howard University, the nation's best known black university.
- Last year he convened the first congressional hearing on racial profiling, and announced his support for a bill to mandate a nationwide analysis of race and ethnicity in police stops. "Using race broadly as a profiler . . . is, I believe, unconstitutional," he said; what makes it especially pernicious is "the extraordinarily destructive effect that it has on the people's confidence in government."
- "Racism," he wrote in a 1999 newspaper column, "corrupts the mind, infects the heart, and poisons the spirit."
And who is this sympathetic member of Congress whom no one could accuse of racism? John Ashcroft, of course. But so ugly and unrelenting have been the attacks on Ashcroft's character, and so incessant the implication that he is a racial bigot, that anyone who relies for information on the mainstream media -- or the web sites of People for American Way and its ilk -- could be forgiven for assuming that Ashcroft is a clone of David Duke.
That such accusations can be made -- and not only made, but reported as if they are true -- shows how easily slander overpowers common sense. After all, if Ashcroft were truly a racial neanderthal, how could he have spent 25 years in public office and five times been elected statewide -- twice to the job of attorney general -- without anyone in Missouri ever noticing?
If Ashcroft's resemblance to the Imperial Wizard of the KKK were really so evident, why would the Mound City Bar Association of St. Louis, a venerable black bar association, have written him in 1991 to commend his "sensitivity . . . track record for appointing women and minorities . . . [and] progressive sense of fairness and equity"? Why would Charles Evers, the former mayor of Fayette, Miss., and brother of murdered civil rights leader Medgar Evers, be sticking his neck out to vouch for Ashcroft's decency? "The allegations of racism against him," Evers wrote the other day, "are not supported by facts."
But facts rarely matter to witch-hunters. At Tuesday's confirmation hearing, Senator Edward Kennedy slammed Ashcroft for not having leaped 16 years ago to embrace massive interdistrict school busing in St. Louis.
"How costly was this going to be," Kennedy shouted, "before you were going to say that those kids going in lousy schools, that you were going to do something about it?" Does the senator from Boston -- where busing led to racial hatred, civic trauma, educational failure, and classrooms more segregated than ever -- still believe that forcing thousands of kids to take long rides to unfamiliar neighborhoods is the way to "do something" about lousy schools? Or did he just want an excuse to yell at Ashcroft on live TV?
Ashcroft's enemies want to bring him down because he is a religious conservative, but they lack the integrity to admit it. So they smear him as a racist, a misogynist, a gun nut. The dress him up in a white robe and hood. They paint him as a zealot from the right-wing fringe.
But it is they who are the zealots from the fringe. As they labor to shred the good name of this admirable man, their behavior is beneath
Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist.