John Ashcroft's Power Grab: The Saga of a Troubled-And Troubling-Attorney General

By Doherty, Brian | Reason, June 2002 | Go to article overview

John Ashcroft's Power Grab: The Saga of a Troubled-And Troubling-Attorney General


Doherty, Brian, Reason


WREN U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL John Ashcroft was eight years old, his father, J. Robert Ashcroft, took the boy up in a Piper Cub airplane. Then Dad blessed young John with a special treat.

"John, I'd like you to fly this plane for a while," he said.

"I was one awestruck kid," Ashcroft remembers lovingly at the very beginning of his 1998 memoir, On My Honor: The Beliefs That Shape My Life. But he was also a lost one: "What do I do?" he shouted to his pa.

"Just grab the stick and push it straight forward."

Which of course sent the plane into a terrifying "bombing-raid dive toward a farm...I lost all sense of time or place as fear gripped my insides."

Turned out it was all just a practical joke. Dad saved them in the nick of time--and, recounts John, "had a good chuckle" at the expense of his naive son.

Was young John mistrustful of his trickster father after such an intense prank? In his autobiography, Ashcroft chooses the high road, completely recasting what might seem a particularly mean bit of joshing as a deliberate attempt to teach him a valuable lesson. the lesson, Ashcroft writes, is that "actions have consequences....In a positive sense, I learned that wherever I was, if I put my hand to something, I could make a difference."

Uh, yeah. The boy in the famous joke, digging through the pile of manure looking for the pony, has nothing on our nation's top cop. The most obvious response to Ashcroft's version of this story is, What the hell is wrong with this guy? While it's certainly the type of thing a boy is apt to remember, what would possess a man writing a memoir--meant largely to honor dear old dad--to start his book with this particular anecdote?

The stories we choose to tell on ourselves are, well, telling. Given its place of pride in his book, Ashcroft's father tricking him seems to be his most beloved, or at least most vibrant, childhood memory. Ashcroft, one can infer, believes in something like Tough Love. (Indeed, treating juvenile crooks as adults has been a pet theme through his entire political career.) And if the attorney general, the "nation's top cop," is the symbolic disciplinarian and parental figure for American society, then we're all Ashcroft's kids now--which could mean some harrowing times ahead.

Yet Ashcroft is a far more complicated father figure than most of his enemies grant. They see him in one role only: the stern disciplinarian driven by an unshakable belief that God and he are as one, a man so prudish he can't tolerate unclothed statuary. But the American father-figure template includes many different roles, and Ashcroft has filled more than a few during his public life. At times, he's come across as an obsessive, driven, and ultimately self-destructive tyrant given to fits of rage (think Robert Duvall in The Great Santini). Other times, he's an overly earnest goody-two-shoes quick with an uplifting Bible verse (think The Simpsons' Ned Flanders). And sometimes, he comes across as a sleepy-brained, bumbling doofus falling into trouble (think Blondie's Dagwood Bumstead).

Especially given the immense power he's holding in post-9/II America, it's worth contemplating the varied facets of John Ashcroft--and their flaws. He's a religious man at loggerheads with the dominant culture; a politician who has mostly been (despite surface appearances) a failure; and an attorney general who may be turning into something worse than his enemies anticipated--though perhaps not in the way they assumed.

True Believer

In December, The Weekly Standard, as staunch a friend as Ashcroft has in the media, did a laudatory cover story on "General Ashcroft," praising the fightin' spirit that 9/II brought out in the former senator from Missouri. Indeed, Ashcroft is a man at war not simply with Muslim extremists, but with secular America. Central to any consideration of him is his religion, which was also one of the reasons, rightly or wrongly, that he was hated and feared by the left long before 9/II.

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