Magazine article The New Yorker

The Talk of the Town: The Wrong Man

Magazine article The New Yorker

The Talk of the Town: The Wrong Man

Article excerpt

When President Bush--the first one--was running for reelection, his eldest son served as an informal adviser, enforcer, and factotum. The son's duties in that 1992 campaign included acting as the father's personal liaison to the conservative movement, especially the religious right. By all accounts, he did a serviceable job, but it was too little and too late. George W. Bush drew many lessons from the defeat of George H. W. Bush; one of the most important, the younger man's biographers agree, was that the care and feeding of the right must be attended to early and often.

Eight years later, President-elect Bush served up a plateful of bones to the constituency that, he thought, President Bush had fatally neglected. Among those bones was the femur of a tyrannosaur: the nomination of John Ashcroft as Attorney General. Ashcroft was himself fresh from defeat after a single term in the Senate, where, according to the authoritative National Journal, he had tied for first place as the most conservative member. Ashcroft was an advocate of criminalizing abortion, even in cases of rape and incest; he was a promiscuous advocate of amending the Constitution in such areas as school prayer, abortion, and flag-burning; and he was a passionate opponent of what he called "special rights for homosexuals." Almost all Bush's Cabinet choices were approved by overwhelming margins; in Ashcroft's case, despite the Senate's traditional solicitude for its alumni, forty-two votes were recorded against confirmation. Ashcroft, in other words, was picked as a consequence of certain political calculations to play a certain political role. That was then, before the hijacked planes put a rent in the fabric of time. The role Ashcroft finds himself playing now is, like so many other things, suddenly very different.

The Administration's handling of the unprecedented emergency that began on September 11th has been, in its broad outlines, balanced and proportionate. The military and diplomatic campaign against terrorism continues to enjoy nearly unanimous public and congressional support. But there has been at least one conspicuous exception to the overall pattern, and the main author of that exception is John Ashcroft. A series of actions taken by the Department of Justice has raised the hackles of an unusual array of critics. The actions include, notably, an administrative order allowing federal authorities to eavesdrop on conversations between prisoners and their lawyers without a warrant; the summoning for questioning of some five thousand students from Islamic countries resident in the United States; the continued detention of hundreds of aliens without explanation; and the establishment of military tribunals to try suspected terrorists. Those raising the alarm have ranged from the Cato Institute, on the right, to the American Civil Liberties Union, on the left, and from conservatives like William Safire and Bob Barr (Bill Clinton's nemesis in the House) to liberals like Anthony Lewis and Patrick Leahy, whose Senate Judiciary Committee will question Ashcroft in open hearings this week.

It's still a free country. Bush and Ashcroft, for what it's worth, have done nothing that can compare with the prosecution of thousands of dissenters during the First World War, the detention of a hundred and twenty thousand Japanese-Americans during the Second, or the F. …

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