June 18, 2007

When Alberto Gonzales—Barney Rubble of the sitting administration and an unseemly bagman—crashed the sickbed of John Ashcroft to present Bush’s wiretap plan as a fait accompli, Attorney General Ashcroft, as now we know, declined to dance. The New York Times produced its most useful and intelligible piece of journalism this year by creating a one-page digest of the testimony of James Comey, former Deputy Attorney General and the eyewitness to that act of justice which now has praise for the oft-maligned Ashcroft coming from unlikely quarters. The drama peaks here:


Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Card entered the room, with Mr. Gonzales carrying an envelope. “And then Mr. Gonzales began to discuss why they were there, to seek his approval for a matter,” Mr. Comey related. “And Attorney General Ashcroft then stunned me,” Mr. Comey went on: He raised his head from the pillow, reiterated his objections to the program, then lay back down, pointing to Mr. Comey as the attorney general during his illness.


For those of us treated, in 1997, to a political youth’s official tour of Republican Washington, the John Ashcroft who riveted the assembled with a classic account of conservative principle always seemed out of place in the rogue’s gallery of crude First Administration caricatures plastered on lampposts and transformer boxes by agitprop guerillas. You remember: huge portraits of Cheney, Rumsfeld, Bush, and Ashcroft, their faces lined with a ghastly riot of exaggerated wrinkles, a savage cross between the California Raisins and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. They blanketed Los Angeles, and in the waning days of ’04 they showed up across D.C., too.


So Ross Douthat shares in my surprise at the praise rolling in by the likes of Andrew Sullivan, for whom Ashcroft now appears as “an honorable man”—albeit only “in comparison with his successor.” Just as well for Deng Xiaoping and Nikita Khrushchev. Accolades like these leave a man wondering who needs detractors. But the denigration that Ashcroft received, back when he was busy juggling the competing priorities of upholding the rule of law and not dying of pancreatitis, harped as fetishistically as Douthat observes upon Ashcroft’s muscular piety:


Ashcroft was a man of right-wing but fairly unremarkable political views who had a long and reasonably distinguished record as a public servant when he was nominated by George W. Bush to be attorney general. From that point on he was persistently smeared, mocked and ridiculed by liberals and the press, primarily, so far as I can tell, because he belonged to a Protestant sect that prohibited dancing and may have ordered a statue’s bared breasts draped during his press conferences.


The central conceit of the left’s attack on Bushism, preached by Sullivan with all the voluptuousness of the more recently converted, portrayed bumbling corruption and shadow absolutism as the evil little homunculi of a fundamentalist, evangelicalist, ‘Christianist’ takeover of the Federal government. The case that this story has all the imagination and none of the excitement of Rumplestiltskin has badly been damaged by revelations that a very steady influx of Justice Department flunkies was piped in from Pat Robertson’s law school under both Bush administrations, and that some of these flunkies rose to the level of Senior Counsel to the Attorney General and DOJ White House Liason. Dahlia Lithwick described, in The Washington Post, how the conflation of the Kingdom of Heaven with the Halls of Justice “meshed perfectly” with Ashcroft’s “worldview”—this crazy fellow for whom “pride” was a bad word and—one almost suppresses a shudder—the phrase stamped on all documents bearing his signature read “no higher calling than public service.”


Ashcroft’s vexed inquisitors can take that calling to the bank. Bizarrely enough it actually transpires that a man who thinks dancing is wrong and nudie sculptures distracting can also believe that, national emergency or no, the rule of law is the rule of law, and Attorneys General are not to be strongarmed, sweet talked, or Sodium Pentothaled into deputizing White House operators to overrule their own sober judgment. It would then appear that Alberto Gonzales, openly jeered from day one by uncouth rubes from red states as an empty suit and an affirmative action hire, was on top of all these un-PC things a soldier not for Jesus but for Dubya, a gofer prepared to tunnel through any mountain to do his bidding. Good God! Just when you thought it was safe to equate comprehensive doctrines with apple-pie falangism….


Of course, the litmus test for virtuous governance remains neither partisan fealty nor brand-name smarts but political virtue. Since the study in public schools of democratic Greece and republican Rome has been reduced to running an inane gauntlet of dioramas and blacktop Olympic games, merciful only in its brevity, this lesson is lost on bureaucratic virtuosi and the superstitious secular alike. Every hoary adage about the power of power to do powerful things to people remains easy enough to learn, if a little harder to put into practice. But those peddling that soft bigotry of low expectations which so fashionably casts all pious public servants as pliant and idiotic Bush-worshippers have now, just perhaps, given John Ashcroft’s remarkable performance, gotten religion.


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