So far, attorney general takes softer stance

Is America's new attorney general pulling a "Walter Hickel" on his critics?

As Richard Nixon's designee for Interior secretary, Mr. Hickel - Alaska's governor at the time - kicked up a storm when he pronounced he had no use for "conservation for conservation's sake." After a blizzard of criticism, the pro-driller quickly reversed course, turning into a tree-hugger to reassure skeptics.

John Ashcroft, one of the most hotly disputed attorney-general nominees in history, isn't going to quite this extreme. But as he lays out his agenda and assembles his team, it's clear he's keeping his critics in mind.

"It would not be fair to say that Ashcroft is cowed after the hearings, but he certainly has opted for the lowest profile possible," says Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University here.

In his debut at a standing-room-only media briefing this week, the attorney general was soothingly mild - though he did cause a small stir with hints he might aid Congress in its investigation of Bill Clinton's pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich.

Moreover, his vague, three-point agenda of targeting gun crimes, drug use among youth, and discrimination has given even die-hard liberals little to object to.

As laid out in the briefing, Mr. Ashcroft's agenda "seemed relatively unobjectionable from the standpoint of national values," says Paul Rothstein, a legal expert at Georgetown University here. "It didn't seem particularly reactionary or conservative."

During his confirmation hearings, Ashcroft came under intense fire for his anti-abortion views, his opposition to gun control, and his positions on civil rights.

But it looks as if the new attorney general is moving first to bridge the yawning gap between himself and the African-American community.

His first meeting this week with a Justice Department division, for instance, was with the civil rights group, where he said he would focus on issues like racial profiling and voting rights and "do everything we can to combat discrimination."

Ashcroft also praised Larry Thompson, an African-American lawyer nominated yesterday for the key post of deputy attorney general - a move seen by analysts as an effort to reach out to the black community.

Despite his conservative credentials, Mr. Thompson received support this week from such civil rights activists as Joseph Lowery, chairman of the Black Leadership Forum in Atlanta, and Martin Luther King III, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

"In terms of agenda, and clearly in terms of the civil rights aspect, [Ashcroft] is coming across as conciliatory," says David Bositis, a leading analyst of minority voting in America.

Mr. Bositis explains that the black vote, which went almost exclusively to Al Gore, is not something President Bush can safely ignore.

"I don't think Bush minds the controversy over abortion; I think he views that as a net positive," Bositis says. "But race is not a net positive. Race is a net negative."

But to many in the abortion-rights camp, the administration's views on abortion are no less critical than its views on race.

Although Ashcroft this week sought to dampen concerns by reiterating his testimony that Roe v. Wade was a law he would not seek to "unsettle," that position is still at odds with the views of his boss.

President Bush has said his administration would support challenging the landmark Supreme Court ruling if it had a strong enough case to back.

"I have to say, Ashcroft's response to the question, that this is settled law, simply does not make me in any way feel safe," says Kate Michelman, president of NARAL, a leading abortion-rights advocacy group.

The group is also very concerned about another Justice nominee announced yesterday: Ted Olson, for solicitor general (the solicitor general argues the administration's positions before the US Supreme Court). Mr. Olson is most famous for arguing before the justices on behalf of Bush during the Florida recount controversy - which resulted in Bush winning the presidency.

Because Olson's legal background has not so far involved issues surrounding a woman's right to choose, Ms. Michelman is unable to point to a specific anti-abortion record. "But what we know from people who know him is that he's very, very conservative."

Still, Mr. Turley is convinced that Ashcroft will not make any controversial moves for quite some time - certainly not before he has his team in place.

"At the moment, he's the most watched man in Washington, and he is no doubt waiting for that level of scrutiny to diminish before he makes any significant policy changes," he says.

That corresponds with the view among Hill Democrats that it's far too early to judge whether Ashcroft has had a true policy conversion like Hickel.

"It's going to be an extended wait-and-see," says one Senate Democratic aide. The attorney general, for all his conciliatory remarks, still faces "a highly skeptical audience."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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