President Bush asked the Senate to look into the hearts of each of his cabinet nominees. Through careful, albeit contentious, hearings for his nominee for attorney general, John Ashcroft, the Senate tried to do just that.
In those hearings, Americans got a first, strong taste of the rancor that can occur when the Senate, and the country, is split right down the middle on social issues. The controversy over Mr. Ashcroft's nomination broke along clearly partisan lines.
Ashcroft may now be confirmed by the Senate, but the Democrats have fired a warning shot over the Bush ship of state. Their message: Expect more battles over conservative legal appointments - to the Supreme Court or elsewhere.
Ashcroft's deeply conservative views on abortion, civil rights, and guns were subjected to extraordinarily close scrutiny by Democrats and liberal groups. Still, his critics were left unsatisfied.
Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the Judiciary Committee's ranking Democrat, summarized much of the concern over Mr. Ashcroft's candor when he spoke on the Senate floor this week: "Most of us in this body have known the old John Ashcroft. During the hearings, we met a new John Ashcroft. Were the demurrals of his testimony real, or were they delicate bubbles that could burst and evaporate a year or a month or a day from now under the reassertion of his long-held beliefs?"
The core issue is whether, as attorney general, Ashcroft will put his own ideology above the law.
Supporters, such as Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) of Iowa, say Ashcroft has demonstrated the integrity to maintain his "by-the-book approach to governing" as he goes about cleaning up a Justice Department he and others feel has lacked integrity.
The new attorney general's adherence to that standard will be closely watched. As he promised the committee, he'll have to "vigorously" uphold the laws of the land whether he personally agrees with them or not - including the Supreme Court's decision legalizing abortion, Roe v. Wade, which Ashcroft acknowledged as "settled law."
Testimony regarding Ashcroft's opposition to the appointment of a black Missouri judge to the federal bench was particularly disturbing. The judge, Ronnie White, said then-Senator Ashcroft distorted his record, calling him "pro-criminal," based on his interpretation of a few of Judge White's written decisions.
Even if Ashcroft's motives at the time were political, not racial, the episode leaves doubts about his judgment among African-Americans and others.
Ashcroft will have to work especially hard to surmount both his critics and some elements of his own record, and to prove to the country that he will be, as Senator Leahy said, an attorney general "for all the people."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society