He speaks in vivid terms - of "hysteria" over the fear of "raincoated, dark-suited" agents terrorizing librarians with "grinding interrogation." And then the punchline: that in fact, to date, not a single American's library records have been reviewed under the Patriot Act.
But this revelation last week by Attorney General John Ashcroft, delivered in mocking tones, has done little to dampen his role as a lightning rod in the Bush administration. His name remains a sure-fire applause line for Democratic presidential candidates, who promise, if elected, to fire him.
For civil libertarians, Mr. Ashcroft embodies a seemingly insatiable appetite for more federal law-enforcement power. To some conservatives, worried about the size and reach of gov- -ernment, he is a brother in need of some friendly advice. To others, he is a forceful advocate in the war on terror, reminding the nation of what's gone right since 9/11.
Mr. Ashcroft's directive on Monday - requiring federal prosecutors to seek the toughest charges possible in most criminal cases - serves as a reminder of his drive to be seen as tough on all crime, terror- related or not. After finishing a 16-city tour defending his terrorism policies, he is now traveling the nation with a "tough on terror, tough on crime" message.
Ashcroft joins a long line of attorneys general who have caught heat for their views and actions. Early in Bill Clinton's presidency, Janet Reno inflamed passions that never subsided after a deadly raid on the Branch Davidians in Waco, Tex. Under President Reagan, Edwin Meese took heat from the left as he pushed a conservative agenda. Under President Johnson, Ramsey Clark became known for his liberal activism. After World War I, A. Mitchell Palmer's name became synonymous with repressive anticommunist raids.
The attorney general's brief touches on some of the hottest buttons in American life - such as race, civil liberties, drugs, religion, and, in recent decades, abortion - so it's not surprising the nation's AG's have become household names.
In the current administration, the styles of both Bush and Ashcroft allow the attorney general to play the lightning-rod role.
"Lightning rods work when (a) a president is perceived as not being fully in charge and (b) when he projects an ideologically muddy image, such as compassionate conversative," says Richard Ellis, author of "Presidential Lightning Rods."
In addition, Ashcroft seems to have a thick skin, which has allowed him to travel the country, speaking out on the Justice Department's role in fighting terrorism and crime and appearing unfazed by the protesters outside. (Still, he has limited attendance inside the halls largely to law-enforcement personnel, who receive his words enthusiastically.)
Another Bush administration lightning rod, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, also has the kind of gruff personality and devil-may-care approach to criticism that might wear down a more sensitive official, says Professor Ellis, a political scientist at Willamette University in Salem, Ore. Ashcroft, now into his second month of a speaking tour, seems to relish the fight - and has even revived another polarizing battle he had to shelve when 9/11 hit, a war against pornography.
Paul Rosenzweig, senior legal research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, says the jury is still out whether Ashcroft's campaign against his critics will work.
"They spent a year and a half doing nothing (about the criticism), presumably thinking it would fade; that has obviously proven to be wrong," says Mr. Rosenzweig. "So I certainly welcome the recognition by the attorney general that he needs to fight for his programs."
The problem, says Rosenzweig, is that the two elements of the debate - what he calls the "legitimate, heartfelt concerns" about the need for checks and balances in law enforcement and the "political litany" that Ashcroft's actions have unleashed - have merged into one critique.
Some of Ashcroft's conservative critics are taking the long view, and imagining the potential for future mischief with the powers of the Patriot Act. "We are concerned not about Ashcroft, but about a possible subsequent attorney general, named by President Hillary Rodham Clinton, who might define as terrorists those of us who peacefully oppose government policies," writes Paul Weyrich, chairman of the Free Congress Foundation.
The more controversial Patriot Act powers include the ability to conduct so-called "sneak and peak" searches, with secret warrants and indefinitely delayed notification of the target. Another measure, Section 215, allows the FBI wide latitude to secretly access personal records, such as medical, banking, and library information. The use of this provision is classified, but Ashcroft chose to reveal last week that Section 215 had yet to be utilized, an announcement aimed at quelling what he called "hysteria" among librarians.
On the eve of the second anniversary of 9/11, President Bush - not Ashcroft - announced a proposal for still-wider law enforcement powers against terror suspects. It may be, say political analysts, that the topic has gotten so hot that the president himself, more popular in polls than Ashcroft, has to take on the most controversial announcements. The proposal faces an uphill battle in Congress.
But Bush's one-speech foray into the legal dimension of the war on terror also demonstrates that, in the end, there's no daylight between Bush and Ashcroft (even if at times, Ashcroft has appeared to go off the reservation - such as the time he announced from Moscow the capture of a key terrorist, ahead of what the administration had planned to say).
"Clearly, Ashcroft takes a lot of heat," says Ellis, the author on presidential lightning rods. "Whether that helps Bush is hard to say. The idea of a lightning rod is you're deflecting blame from the president. At some point, people can attract lightning to the administration."
For now, Bush still gets favorable marks from the public in the war on terrorism, and Ashcroft remains popular among Christian conservatives. His usefulness in rallying Bush's conservative base in the 2004 election may be the strongest selling point for keeping him in the Cabinet.