From the time he took the oath of office as Attorney General of the United States, John Ashcroft declared war on the Constitution and freedom as we know it in the United States.
President George W. Bush capitulated to the rabid, right-wing of the Republican Party by appointing Ashcroft, a bible-thumping zealot from Missouri who holds a narrow, ultra-conservative moralistic view of the world.
Ashcroft showed his true colors from day one, ordering drapes for nude statues in the Justice Building of Washington. His prudishness came as no surprise for long-time Ashcroft watchers.
As Missouri attorney general, Ashcroft often put his own extremist beliefs over the law, threatening to prosecute business who opened on Sunday even after a statewide voter referendum overturned the state’s archaic “blue laws” that forced retail establishments to close on the Seventh Day.
“God’s will supersede the laws of man,” Ashcroft declared at the time. The Supreme Court of Missouri disagreed and forced him to cease and desist. It would be the first of many clashes between Ashcroft and the courts and the courts always won.
As both attorney general and governor of Missouri, Ashcroft compiled a horrendous record on civil rights, opposing outright desegregation of schools in St. Louis and laws granting equal rights to women and minorities. Finally, Missouri voters had enough, throwing then-Senator Ashcroft out of office and electing, in his place, a dead man – Missouri governor Mel Carnahan who died in a plane crash before the election.
After his own disputed election as President in 2000, Bush caved to right-wing pressure and nominated Ashcroft as attorney general, a move that sent shivers down the spine of anyone who valued freedom over zealotry. Ashcroft immediately set up a “large-scale campaign against pornography,” with hundreds of FBI agents, lawyers and researchers gobbling up millions of dollars in taxpayer funds.
Then the terrorist attacks of 9-11. When he returned to Washington, Bush assembled his cabinet and told Ashcroft: “John, you do whatever you have to keep this from ever happening again.”
Giving such carte blanche to a zealot like Ashcroft was, at best, a dangerous decision by Bush. Ashcroft immediately went to work on the U.S.A. Patriot Act, a rights-robbing set of laws that ignored basic freedoms of the Constitution and gave the Federal Government broad powers to hold American citizens without cause, deny them right to counsel and wiretap any person almost at will.
Ashcroft and the Bush administration rammed the Patriot Act through a shell-shocked Congress. Later, most House members and Senators would admit they hadn’t read the act and didn’t know its full impact. Now, after realizing the real dangers, many of those who voted for it initially want to roll back the more serious implications of the law.
Even lifelong conservatives feel Ashcroft went too far. Former Congressman Bob Barr heads a coalition trying to repeal the Patriot Act and prevent a second Ashcroft initiative that would give police and the feds even more power to invade the privacy and rights of Americans.
And the courts have stepped in a number of times to curtail Ashcroft’s zealotry. Many of his high-profile arrests of so-called terrorists have stalled or been tossed out. Legal scholars say the Justice Department under Ashcroft is “inept” and unable to build cases against those in custody because they “don’t know the basics of building a case.”
And what about Ashcrot’s high-profile, taxpayer-dollar gobbing anti-pornography crusade? To date, the Justice Department has brought 43 cases to trial – and lost every one. The most laughable was a high-profile trial against a Missouri couple for selling sex-education videotapes. It took a jury of 12 women — all between 40 and 60 — less than three hours to deliver a verdict of not guilty.
Sometime in the future, when historians are able to assess the record of the Bush administration without the lingering hysteria of 9-11, John Ashcroft’s tenure as attorney general of the United States may be recognized as a greater threat to freedom than any explosive-packed airplane slamming into a building.
Ashcroft resigned Tuesday. But while the tyrant is gone, the tyranny of his actions remain as a constant threat to the freedoms we once accepted as a guarantee in this country.