John Ashcroft, Riding Back on a White Horse

The former attorney general was praised by John Conyers, right, among other Democrats.
The former attorney general was praised by John Conyers, right, among other Democrats. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Dana Milbank
Friday, July 18, 2008

The rehabilitation of John David Ashcroft has been a wonder to behold.

When he left the Justice Department three years ago, he was the left's favorite demon, the symbol of all the dark and sinister practices of the Bush administration. "Apparently he wants to spend more time spying on his family," David Letterman mused.

But when he walked into the House Judiciary Committee hearing room yesterday, the Father of the Patriot Act received a rather more favorable reception.

"I could recite a number of examples of where the former attorney general made me very proud of the decisions he made or some of the things that he said," recited Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.).

"I also, Mr. Ashcroft, Mr. Attorney General, want to commend you for your willingness to appear before this committee," commended Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.). "I think it says a lot about you in a positive way."

"I really respect you," gushed Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.). "I think you are probably the most formidable witness I have experienced."

Ashcroft worked hard to merit such praise: He disavowed interrogation memos that his former colleagues still defend.

"There is no room in the Justice Department for an assumption that its work is perfect," he said, noting that the infamous torture memos were withdrawn "with both my knowledge and my approval."

Though still maintaining that waterboarding doesn't qualify as torture, he argued that "there is no exception that I know of that allows people to violate the law." He said he told administration lawyers to "get about the business of correcting" the torture policy. As for his approval of the policies in the first place? "I don't think I could, under oath, say that I've never had a second thought about it."

Ashcroft as the voice of reason? If you live long enough, you'll see just about everything.

His improbable comeback would have forced F. Scott Fitzgerald to reconsider his skepticism about second acts. In 2000, Ashcroft lost his Senate seat -- to a dead man. Appointed attorney general by President Bush, he gained notoriety for ordering a blue curtain to cover the exposed right breast of the "Spirit of Justice" statue in the Justice Department's Great Hall. And he gained infamy for telling critics of the administration's legal philosophy that "your tactics only aid terrorists" and "give ammunition to America's enemies."

But then came Ashcroft's successor, Alberto Gonzales, whose tenure ranged from incompetence to lawlessness. Last year, a Senate investigation discovered that Gonzales, as White House counsel, had raided Ashcroft's hospital room in 2004 in hopes of getting the seriously ill attorney general to sign off on a spying program others called illegal. Ashcroft, suffering from pancreatitis, rallied to reject Gonzales.

All of this caused a reassessment among Ashcroft's foes as they learned how much worse things could get. Ashcroft may be an ideologue, and he may draw titters when he sings his patriotic hymn, "Let the Eagle Soar" -- but at least he follows the law.

The newly popular Ashcroft entered the hearing room smiling yesterday. He felt confident enough to tease Conyers over the white loafers the chairman wore with his dark-gray suit.

He then sat down, put on his reading glasses and soaked up the praise. "We're very proud to welcome him back again to the House Judiciary Committee," Conyers announced.

Even fellow witness Walter Dellinger, a administration solicitor general in the Clinton administration, offered up praise. "General Ashcroft is, we know, a man of the law who is willing to stand up and take tough and courageous positions," Dellinger vouchsafed.

After Dellinger praised Ashcroft, the panel's ranking Republican, Lamar Smith (Tex.), praised Dellinger for praising Ashcroft. "Your graciousness adds to your stature," Smith said.

Ashcroft's stature also benefited in comparison with some of his questioners. Smith struggled to pronounce the name of the al-Qaeda operative known as Abu Zubaida. His written statement included a phonetic pronunciation ("zoo-bay-duh"), but Smith still pronounced it "ZOO-buh-DOO," making it sound like "Scooby Doo." The affliction proved infectious, for when it was Wexler's turn to question Ashcroft, the terrorist's nom de guerre came out, three times, as "ZAH-boo-duh."

Against that backdrop, Ashcroft could not help but sound respectable as he distanced himself from his former administration. When Conyers asked whether the absence of a terrorist attack since 2001 means that "we're doing things right," Ashcroft replied: "Overly simplistic approaches that say everything we're doing is right -- really, as a matter of fact, they're dangerous."

So impressed were the lawmakers that they tried to assign Ashcroft more praise than he was willing to accept -- as when Wexler asked him to confirm that he told administration officials that "history will not treat us kindly" over the torture policies -- a statement that reflected "to your credit."

But Ashcroft said he couldn't confirm the quote: classified.

There were but faint traces of the demonized Ashcroft of old: when he snapped at Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) that "I'm not here to answer hypotheticals like that," and when, waxing euphoric about the deliberative process within the Justice Department, he burst out with "You know, I'm just right now next to standing up and singing the national anthem."

"Pardon me," the new Ashcroft said, catching himself. "I apologize."

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