The artful dodger

John Ashcroft's nose is growing faster than Pinocchio's during his Senate confirmation hearings. As attorney general, will he be as evasive with the truth?

Published January 30, 2001 4:45PM (EST)

Of all the perfectly sound reasons to oppose John Ashcroft's nomination -- and perhaps to mount a filibuster against him, now that his confirmation appears likely -- the most compelling is that he didn't tell the truth to the United States Senate.

In deference to the presidential prerogative, many senators may feel they should approve Ashcroft despite his ideological extremism; others may think they owe a former colleague the benefit of the doubt when he promises to enforce the law impartially. But how are they to believe that pledge, or expect the majority of skeptical Americans to trust Ashcroft, after he prevaricated so blatantly during his own testimony under oath?

Two years ago, the Senate conducted an impeachment trial against a president who had lied about personal matters in a private lawsuit. Before President Clinton was finally acquitted because the majority felt his offenses were not impeachable, dozens of Republicans declared that such lying was unacceptable in the nation's chief magistrate. Why then is similar conduct now deemed acceptable in a candidate for the nation's highest law enforcement position? And why would the Senate vouchsafe the responsibilities of that office to a man who has already mocked its trust?

The senators who vote to confirm his nomination this week will laud Ashcroft as a public servant of unblemished integrity, and such praise may be uttered by them in full sincerity. But to any senator who fulfills his or her own obligation to examine the hearing record completely and dispassionately, Ashcroft's dishonesty will be too obvious to be ignored.

Almost nobody believes his evasive answers about the ambassadorial nomination of James Hormel, for instance. Rather than admit forthrightly that he had blocked Hormel as ambassador to Luxembourg because the Clinton nominee would have been the nation's first openly gay envoy, Ashcroft chose to make vague claims about Hormel's "entire record," adding ominously that Hormel had "recruited" him to the University of Chicago. Few falsehoods more obvious than that one have ever been told under oath in a Senate hearing. Ashcroft also testified untruthfully about the substance of the St. Louis desegregation case. Instead of admitting that he opposed integration, which he clearly did, the former Missouri attorney general insisted that he was merely defending his state government from an overreaching federal judge. That may be a matter of opinion, but it left the clear impression back then of a politician stirring racial conflict for personal advancement.

But when Ashcroft claimed repeatedly in the hearings that "the state had not been found really guilty of anything" in the St. Louis court case, he knew that answer was wholly false. Having appealed the matter all the way to the Supreme Court and lost, he can't have forgotten that the state of Missouri was held responsible by the courts for its long history of maintaining segregrated schools in St. Louis and its suburbs.

Ashcroft lied confidently during the hearings about matters large and small, presumably relying on the gullibility of his former colleagues. Among the more disturbing instances was his attempted explanation of the now-notorious interview he gave in 1998 to the Southern Partisan, an organ of the neo-Confederate movement.

On Jan. 17, Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., engaged Ashcroft in a long, rambling discourse about the Southern Partisan's racial and ethnic bias and its dogged defense of slavery and "states' rights." Mostly Biden seemed to be talking to hear the sound of his own voice, as he often does in hearings, but Ashcroft eventually had a chance to respond to Biden's scolding.

"I don't know if I've ever read the magazine or seen it," he said, claiming that he had merely answered a few questions in a telephone interview. "And I regret that speaking to them is being used to imply that I agree with their views." Moments later he added, "I probably should do more due diligence on [Southern Partisan]. I know they've been accused of being racist." Unfortunately, Biden was ill-prepared to press Ashcroft any further. Otherwise he might have asked how Ashcroft could claim he didn't know about the Southern Partisan's content when he had told the editor who interviewed him that "your magazine ... helps set the record straight. You've got a heritage of doing that, of defending Southern patriots like Lee, Jackson and Davis." Certainly in that text, whose accuracy Ashcroft has never denied, he sounds like a fan who is quite familiar with the magazine's content.

Maybe he was just giving a few strokes to a desirable white supremacist voting bloc. Yet even if Ashcroft was uninformed about the Southern Partisan's seamier aspects when he spoke with the magazine in 1998, it is impossible to believe that he hasn't learned a great deal more about the magazine since then.

That was what he claimed later the same day, however, when he gave the following pious answer to a softball question from Kansas Republican Sam Brownback: "I don't even want to do an interview with a magazine that in any way promotes slavery. I don't. That's not my -- I had no understanding that that was the case about the magazine. I don't know if that is the case, but if it is, I repudiate it."

For Ashcroft to say he "doesn't know" whether the Southern Partisan promotes slavery is simply unbelievable. He has been coping with the political fallout from that interview for most of the past two years. It became a major issue in his unsuccessful race for reelection to the Senate; it was the subject of citizen petitions, extensive media coverage, angry newspaper editorials and even local legislative resolutions in 1999 and 2000. Throughout that period the magazine's racist content was exposed over and over again, while Ashcroft and his spokesmen attempted to deflect criticism of the interview. After such hot and heavy controversy in Missouri, he must be painfully aware by now of the Southern Partisan's poisonous content. Biden's questioning was inept and poorly informed, but that didn't excuse Ashcroft from giving an honest response, which he chose not to do.

Let us just hope that if his nomination is approved, no senator pretends to be surprised when Attorney General Ashcroft misleads the Congress or reneges on an important promise. They have been duly warned, at the very beginning, by his own flawed testimony.

By Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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