Pubdate: Sat,  6 Jan 2001
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2001 The New York Times Company
Contact:  229 West 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036
Fax: (212) 556-3622
Author: Anthony Lewis
Column: Abroad At Home
Bookmark: (Ashcroft, John)


BOSTON -- The district attorney of Kings County (Brooklyn), N.Y., Charles 
J. Hynes, has for 10 years run a program that diverts nonviolent drug 
offenders from prison to treatment: a tough residential regimen of up to 
two years. It has been a great success. Those who complete the program get 
into renewed trouble with the law at half the rate of other drug offenders.

Congress came close last month to authorizing federal grants for drug 
treatment alternatives on that model. A bill sponsored by two Republicans, 
Orrin Hatch and Strom Thurmond, and a Democrat, Charles E. Schumer, passed 
the Senate; another passed the House with the support of such conservatives 
as Bob Barr of Georgia. But the two versions were not reconciled before 
Congress adjourned.

Given that support for drug treatment alternatives, District Attorney Hynes 
was troubled when he learned that John Ashcroft, George W. Bush's choice 
for attorney general, had spoken against the idea. Senator Ashcroft told a 
conservative think tank in 1997:

"A government which takes the resources that we would devote toward the 
interdiction of drugs and converts them to treatment resources, and instead 
of saying 'Just say no' says 'Just say maybe' or 'Just don't inhale' . . . 
is a government that accommodates us at our lowest and least."

Senator Ashcroft thus scorned a policy that has the support of men as 
conservative as Strom Thurmond and Bob Barr. His position, on this as on so 
many issues, was out of sight on the far right of our politics.

How would he as attorney general carry out a law, if Congress now passes 
it, to aid drug treatment alternatives as more effective and more 
economical than prison? District Attorney Hynes told me, "I would hope he 
would rethink his position."

The same question arises on other issues. How would he enforce the law 
against disruption of clinics that provide abortion, when he has said that 
more than anything else he would like to forbid all abortions except to 
save the mother's life? How committed would he be to the civil rights laws, 
given his acceptance of an honorary degree from Bob Jones University and 
his statement that it was wrong to describe the Confederate cause -- the 
preservation of slavery -- as "perverted"?

Senator Ashcroft was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee's 
subcommittee on constitutional rights. He held hearings not on 
discrimination or freedom of speech or the like. His subjects included the 
right to gun ownership, punishment for burning the flag and reversing the 
Miranda decision.

The Senate should be a place of diverse opinions, no matter how extreme. 
But the role of the attorney general is different. That is the point of the 
controversy about the choice of John Ashcroft. The question is whether the 
country can have confidence in someone so extreme to enforce the law 
impartially and with respect for our legal tradition.

If he were not a former senator, the idea of a person with Mr. Ashcroft's 
views being attorney general would be regarded as grotesque. He would have 
no chance to be confirmed by the Senate. But because he was a member of the 
club, everyone is predicting his confirmation.

The Christian right, which made the attorney general's job its number one 
demand, is all-out in its support. No one can expect detached appraisals 
from Republican senators. Senator Arlen Specter, a so-called moderate, 
wrote an Op-Ed piece for The New York Times calling for moderates in the 
cabinet -- and hastened to add that Senator Ashcroft was "an excellent 

As for Democratic senators, not one has had the courage so far to say that 
he will oppose the Ashcroft nomination. If Al Gore had been elected and had 
chosen someone far out on the left for the job, would conservative senators 
have been so deferential? Not bloody likely.

The political turmoil of recent years has often swirled around the attorney 
general. We need a reassuring figure, one who can bring us back to 
confidence in the law. George W. Bush's failure to understand that is the 
worst aspect of this episode.

After the turmoil of Watergate, President Gerald Ford made a non- political 
choice: Edward Levi, president of the University of Chicago, who restored 
the Justice Department's luster. Writing about President Ford during the 
Republican Convention last August, I asked whether George W. Bush, in 
choosing an attorney general, would follow Gerald Ford and put politics 
second to respect for law. We know the answer now. 
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