The Reinvention of John Ashcroft

John Ashcroft has gotten religion.
Home from a wondrous presidential-campaign odyssey, Missouri's junior senator is a changed man, kinder and gentler, if you will. Gone is the fire-and-brimstone rage against those who would snuff the lives of the unborn and who would perpetrate homosexual godlessness upon our children and who would otherwise subvert the democracy handed down to us all by the Bible.

Now, all John Ashcroft is saying is give peace a chance. Peace among the political parties, that is, and among all people in "this great country" (the phrase he repeats as a mantra in waxing eloquent about bringing us all together).

The new Ashcroft gospel, straight from his heart (and from wife Janet's, as well): "The best is yet to come."

The best is yet to come. What a happy ring that has, so much happier than, say, "Cast off Satan in November!" or "Repent, liberal sinners," or whatever it was those previous Ashcroft campaigns delivered to us by electoral sermon.

Now, it seems, the man who launched his career as a ferocious anti-choice warrior wants only to crusade against taxes and crime and in favor of saving Social Security and improving education. This is the New Ashcroft, just like there once was a New Nixon, and he's even using pretty much the same text.

I know this transformation must be for real, because it's documented right here by the nine-page transcript I'm holding of Ashcroft's remarks last Tuesday in his hometown of Springfield. This was a career-defining speech for the senator, delivered to loyal backers as an announcement that he was pulling out of the presidential sweepstakes, and it purported to serve as an opportunity for him to define his "commitment to a cause."

But the speech was certainly more interesting for what it did not say than for what it said.

In nine pages of text, there is not one mention of the word "abortion." Not one mention of the word "homosexual," nor any other reference to gays and lesbians or alternative lifestyles. Not one mention of family values. Not one mention of the nation's moral decay or of the decline of the family unit. Not one mention of welfare. Not one mention of affirmative action or anything approaching the subject of race. Not one mention of government funding for the arts.

So what is the New Ashcroft all about? Well, he's about "cornerstones." And sharing.

Allow me to share his words with you:
"And so I want to share with you some of the things that Janet and I have shared across this country, as four cornerstones for the construction of the next century, cornerstones that will allow us to build in a way to preserve and protect that hallowed heritage, 'the best is yet to come.' Two cornerstones of opportunity, and two cornerstones of security."

For you cornerstone counters at home, the two economic cornerstones are "economic opportunity for every American" and "educational opportunity for every American." The security cornerstones are "retirement security for every American" and "personal safety and security for all Americans."

If platitude-hurling becomes a sport, Ashcroft's going to the Summer Games. And even when one wades further into the text, there isn't much more of a specific program than to cut taxes, defang the IRS, crack down on juvenile crime offenders and pay off debt to the Social Security Trust Fund. How daring.

Oh, and let's not forget this sophisticated proclamation: "The current tax code of the United States should be bagged, shredded and hauled to the nearest dump!"

What a nice guy Ashcroft has become. It's hard to believe that this is the same fellow who built that rich national portfolio as the bad boy of the Religious Right, the toughest hard-liner on the presidential horizon.

It was Ashcroft who got the best early sound bites calling for Clinton's resignation last January ("We need a leader, not a lawyer"), and it was Ashcroft who spearheaded the vicious -- and failed -- crusade against surgeon-general nominee David Satcher. It was Ashcroft who railed against federal funding for the arts and all the other certain signs that Armageddon was upon us, and it was Ashcroft who garnered the premature support of The Exceptionally Rev. Pat Robertson.

In fact, it was going so well with the far right that Ashcroft handily won a presidential straw poll last May in conservative South Carolina -- "that left the national pundits scratching their heads," he beamed last week -- but sometime between then and last Tuesday, the Ashcroft bus had veered off the road.

Guess to which side?
This brings us, and Ashcroft, back home to Missouri, where popular Gov. Mel Carnahan is poised to give the senator an old-fashioned country butt-whuppin' among folks who are pretty conservative but not quite ready to have their political speeches spoken in tongues. Ashcroft's extremism may have earned one of just 16 perfect 100-percent ratings on the Christian Coalition U.S. Senate political scoreboard (a factoid accessed through a link on Ashcroft's political Web site), but by the 2000 elections, it may marginalize him as much at home as it did on the national landscape.

Thus we have the New Ashcroft. And no mention of that old social agenda.
Now should we believe him? For insight into his credibility, let's look no further than the same Springfield speech, the one in which Ashcroft pulled out of the presidential race.

What was the problem, do you suppose: lack of money, adverse polling data, not enough ambition, too much competition, bad timing? What would cause this fellow who claims to "have logged an equivalent of five trips around the world in the last year" to abandon his presidential dream?

Here's what the man who cries out for "the moral force of character" offered up in the candor department, in explaining his non-candidacy to his supporters:

"As Janet and I have shared this 'best is yet to come' message around the country, and as we've tried to outline the kind of cornerstones that we think are important for the future of this great culture, we have become increasingly aware of a tension that exists between seeking the presidency and serving the people in the U.S. Senate," Ashcroft said. " ....It's become apparent to me that devoting the years ahead to the presidency would substantially impair my ability to place in the right perspective the cornerstones for the future of this great country.

"This is not a time for individuals to place ambition over the agenda of the American people ... and leadership is the business of making choices. Given these circumstances, I come here to say today, that I choose serving Missouri in the U.S. Senate."

How does that score on your sincerity meter? On mine, it's an act of political perjury -- the legally acceptable variety, of course -- and it's deliciously ironic that it occurred on the eve of Ashcroft and others having been sworn to an impossible oath of impartiality regarding the president and his lies.

Most important, however, this is a cautionary tale. John Ashcroft's new political religion is teaching him to put his real one on the shelf long enough to have a chance at re-election. For purposes of his Senate campaign, the zeal that made him a prominent cross-bearer of the Religious Right will seem a thing of the past.

In reality, though, Ashcroft will remain what he has always been as a politician:

A holy terror.

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