White out

As John Ashcroft's confirmation hearings wind down, the key witness, Judge Ronnie White, is too nice for the Democrats' own good.

Published January 19, 2001 2:39AM (EST)

The name of Ronnie White has been tossed around by both sides during the confirmation fight surrounding Attorney General-designate John Ashcroft. To the Democrats, the scuttling of the Missouri Supreme Court justice's nomination to the federal bench is a symbol of Ashcroft's -- and the Republican Party's -- insensitivity to blacks. To the GOP, the African-American judge's name is synonymous with the Democrats' race-baiting in the Ashcroft battle.

But White got a pretty easy ride from everyone on Thursday morning as a witness before the Senate Judiciary Committee, earning lavish praise from the Democrats and even from the Republicans on the panel, who had previously defended Ashcroft's criticisms of him. The unanimous goodwill followed White's strong but restrained remarks about his nemesis, Ashcroft.

"I appreciate this opportunity to tell my story to the United States Senate," White intoned, "and to reclaim my reputation as a lawyer and a judge." White detailed his up-from-poverty personal story: his teenage parents; the basement apartment, lacking a kitchen or a bathroom, that was the family home; the white bullies whose taunts became his inspiration.

"When I was 10 years old, I was bused to a grade school in South St. Louis, where kids would throw milk and food at us and tell us to go back to where we came from," White said. "This racism only strengthened my determination. I was not going to let my color, the color of my skin or the ignorance or the hatefulness of others hold me back."

White talked about working his way through high school, college and law school as a janitor at a fast-food restaurant. He then detailed his rise through state government and the judiciary, up to the Missouri Supreme Court judgeship he held when President Clinton nominated him to join the federal bench in 1998. "At that moment, I felt that I was living the American dream," White declared.

He then recalled how Ashcroft put an end to it. Ashcroft engineered a "Borking" of White, circulating condemnations from some Missouri law enforcement agencies of the judge's dissent on a gruesome death penalty case. White said Ashcroft never asked him directly about it, and Ashcroft's attack seemed all the more excessive. "I was very surprised to hear that he had gone to the Senate floor and called me 'pro-criminal,' [and] 'with a tremendous bent toward criminal activity,'" White said. "I deeply resent those baseless misrepresentations."

By the time Ashcroft was done with White, every Republican voted against his confirmation. By the time White was done with Ashcroft on Wednesday, however, there was still no smoking gun Democrats could point to as proof of any racial bias on Ashcroft's part.

There was also no direct accusation that Ashcroft used the power of his office in a vendetta against White.

The Democrats handled White with the same blind reverence that the Republicans had shown to Ashcroft in previous days, and spoke of the defeat of White's nomination with a single voice of righteous indignation.

"What happened to you is the ugliest thing that's happened to any nominee in all my years in the United States Senate," said Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy.

"I'd just like to extend to you my personal apology for what happened to you," said California's Sen. Dianne Feinstein. "I have never seen it happen before. I want you to know that many us ... were totally blindsided by what happened."

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., White's chief defender on the panel, also got in his sorry two cents. "I am very sorry for what Senator Ashcroft did to you and your reputation," he said. "I join with my colleagues in apologizing for what happened to you before the United States Senate."

"Let me just say, I apologize to this witness," said Sen. Russ Feingold, D.-Wisc., though in Feingold's case, he was just sorry for arriving at the hearing late.

In addition to the giant group hug, the Democrats tried to establish White's record as absolutely above board, or at least above Borking. Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, chair of the committee, led White into agreeing that his record was appropriately moderate and tough on crime. When Leahy asked whether White knew how often the judge had sided with Ashcroft's appointees to the Missouri high court in capital cases, White didn't have the numbers at the ready. "I believe that it's about 75 percent of the time," he said. Leahy corrected him. "Would it surprise you if I told you that a survey done independently finds that you voted with the Ashcroft appointees 95 percent of the time?"

Predictably, White wasn't all that surprised, but he clearly wasn't quite what the Democrats had anticipated. Every time they tried to goad him into theorizing about Ashcroft's motives, he flatly refused to suggest that the Attorney General-designate was a bigot. "I don't know what's in his mind or what's in his heart," White replied to such a query from Kennedy. "So I wouldn't want to speculate on that."

Kennedy pushed the point, giving White another free shot at Ashcroft. "Could you just make a brief comment on these accusations about being pro-criminal, against prosecutors, against maintaining law and order? What's your own attitude?" he asked.

White declined the bait, targeting his fire against Ashcroft strictly on the ugly floor fight that led to the failure of his nomination, avoiding any direct calls for the panel to reject the top cop pick. "I believe that Senator John Ashcroft seriously distorted my record," White said. "But I believe that the question for the Senate is whether these misrepresentations are consistent with fair play and justice that you all would require of the U.S. attorney general, and that would be my position on that."

Other Democratic wooers and pursuers came up short in attempts to get White to blast Ashcroft. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., tried to get White to concur that Ashcroft's treatment of him demonstrated insensitivity to the nation's "long and tortured history of racial relations."

White did say that he felt like a double standard was applied, but part of his answer was a silver bullet for Ashcroft supporters, one that will likely be repeated in Ashcroft's defense for the balance of the confirmation process and, perhaps, for the rest of his career:

"I don't think Senator Ashcroft is a racist," White said.

And the same Republicans who voted against White's nomination to the federal bench seemed willing to break their faces smiling at him on Thursday. "I have a lot of respect for what you went through in your life and how you came up the hard way, how hard you worked," gushed Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "I have a lot of respect for you personally."

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Penn., followed the Democratic line of apologizing to White for not giving him a chance to defend himself against Ashcroft's charges. The Senate was apparently too busy to give the matter much attention. "Unless there is some extraordinary incident, we ... the Senate does not pay as much attention to the specifics on this confirmation process as it should," Specter admitted. "So I think, in a sense, the Senate owes you an apology for not having more of a focus."

Sen. John Kyl, R-Ariz., moved quickly from praising White to patronizing him. "I commend you for the success that you have achieved, especially given the humble background that you spoke of," Kyl began. First he urged White to praise Missouri's late Gov. Mel Carnahan for having the wisdom to put him on the bench, and then suggested that Ashcroft deserved similar hosannas for his African-American appointments.

But he wouldn't praise White's record from the bench. "I am very troubled by some of the things that you have written, but I assure you that I do not believe that you ever intended to misapply the law," he said, "and I believe that that is Senator Ashcroft's belief as well."

That offered little relief for White. Though Ashcroft was absent from Thursday's proceedings, he was the one who enjoyed the real relief. The Democrats had succeeded in laying the grounds for White to charge that Ashcroft was a bigot, and White passed the buck. Yes, White seemed to say, Ashcroft was unfair and even intemperate, but not a racist.

Though the panel heard from another dozen witnesses on Thursday who alternately called Ashcroft a threat to choice, a champion of diversity, a promoter of segregation and guardian of faith, nothing resounded like White's silent refusal to play on the race card, and that could very well trump Ashcroft's opponents. In the morning, Durbin had claimed that the witness examination could go on for another week. By Thursday's end, Leahy said the panel was aiming to finish up by noon Friday.

By Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

MORE FROM Alicia Montgomery

Related Topics ------------------------------------------