The Ashcroft Hearings
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
TERENCE SMITH: Joining us to discuss Senator Ashcroft and his confirmation process are four columnists. Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Constitution; Lee Cullum of the Dallas Morning News; Richard Hood of the Kansas City Star; and Georgie Ann Geyer of the Universal Press Syndicate. Welcome to you all.
Cynthia Tucker, based on the hearings based on his records, based on what you’ve heard so far, is John Ashcroft the right man for the job?
CYNTHIA TUCKER: I’m deeply troubled by the nomination of John Ashcroft to be Attorney General, Terry. I believe that he is not a garden variety conservative. I don’t think he represents the mainstream of even conservative thought. He is an ultraconservative, far to the right of many issues. And issues of justice are critical in this country, particularly to women in so far as enforcing the right to choose, reproductive freedoms and to minority groups, particularly African Americans. There is a long history in this country of African Americans’ struggle for equal opportunity, and we as a nation, I believe, acknowledge that we are not there yet. And the Attorney General is in charge of helping to ensure the minority Americans’ rights are enforced. And I am not sure that John Ashcroft will be up to that.
TERENCE SMITH: Georgie Ann Geyer, what do you think of the arguments that are made against John Ashcroft?
GEORGIE ANN GEYER: Well, Terry, in fairness and with great respect for Cynthia, I think he is getting a bum rap. There is kind of trial now by flashcards. It’s not only racism is of crucial importance in this country. Abortion is important and I don’t agree with him on that although I agree with him on other things. But his wife, for instance, teaches at Howard University — the big African American university. He has approved 23 out of 26 African American judicial appointments. Now it has gotten down to Confederacy – respect for Confederate heritage and things like that. And it’s using these kinds of very, very important confirmation hearings as a way to advance a very far left activist category of flashpoints. And that is what I think is bad and I think it’s very, it’s unfair to this man.
TERENCE SMITH: Lee Cullum, Georgie Ann Geyer thinks he is getting a bum rap. Where do you stand on this?
LEE CULLUM: Well, Terry, I can understand her point. I have a lot of respect for Georgie Ann Geyer. I must admit, though, that I share Cynthia Tucker’s concerns about John Ashcroft as Attorney General. I think he would be fine in some other job, in labor or transportation. It’s too late for that I know but he is clearly a decent man. I do think that he is quite far to the right. I don’t like the idea of criminalizing doctors who perform late-term abortions. I think you can oppose late-term abortion – that’s a reasonable thing to do — to put doctors in prison for performing them is not. I find his views on contraception curious. A Dallas woman said we are going back to the pre-Wendell Willike days. I do feel, however, that a president has a right as a point of principle to name his members of the Cabinet and have them confirmed by the Senate unless there is some strong legal or moral reason not to do so. And there’s no such reason in this case.
TERENCE SMITH: Rich Hood, you’ve known and covered and followed John Ashcroft for a long time. Does this man that’s emerging from the hearings, do you recognize him as the John Ashcroft you know?
RICHARD HOOD: I recognize the John Ashcroft that I heard responding to questions today. I recognize the John Ashcroft who gave his introductory comments yesterday. I did not recognize the John Ashcroft that I heard characterized by – Kate Michelman, Ralph Neas, Jesse Jackson and some of the people who instantly responded to his nomination by President-elect Bush. I’ve known John Ashcroft for more than 20 years, I’ve covered him during the period of time and I agree with what I heard former Missouri Senator Jack Danforth say to the committee today, and that is if John Ashcroft says he will do something, he will do it. I personally disagree with John Ashcroft on some of the stances that he has taken. But I have observed that when he says he will do something he does it — whether or not that conflicts with his personal ideology — unlike many other politicians that I’ve covered in more than 30 years in this business who basically turn in the wind and will tell you one thing and do another — if John Ashcroft says he is going to do something and he flatly affirms that he will enforce the law as it is on the books, then I believe that people can take that to the bank.
TERENCE SMITH: Cynthia Tucker, do you object to John Ashcroft’s ideology, his record or what you think or fear he might do as Attorney General?
CYNTHIA TUCKER: All of the above. Although I would like to be clear that I have not suggested that John Ashcroft should not be confirmed. I am deeply troubled by his nomination. I think he will be dangerous for the country and trouble for the Bush administration but I also, like Lee Cullum, believe that a President has the right to choose his own nominees. I just think that President-elect Bush would have done better to choose someone else. Nor have I said that John Ashcroft is racist. I don’t know whether the man’s racist or not. But I am certainly troubled with some of his positions on issues that are important to African Americans. But let me also say the most interesting thing I think that has arisen out of the hearings is I don’t think that John Ashcroft could be confirmed by the John Ashcroft standard. The gentleman from Missouri who has covered him for so many years says that John Ashcroft, having stated that he would enforce the law, would do that. He is a man of his word; he may be. But he has not given other nominees that opportunity. He voted against Bill Lan Lee, who became Clinton’s appointee to be over civil rights in the Justice Department because he disagreed with Bill LAN Lee’s ideology. He said even though Bill Lee said under oath he would enforce the law, Ashcroft said he didn’t believe he would and voted against him. He also objected to two of Clinton’s Surgeon General nominees because of their ideology on abortion. So John Ashcroft now wants a different standard to be applied to his nomination than he has applied to some Democratic nominees.
TERENCE SMITH: What do you think of that, is there an excessive analysis of his ideology — as opposed to his record?
GEORGIE ANN GEYER: I really think so. Terry. If you listen to him this afternoon it was very, very interesting particularly when he was being almost literally attacked by Teddy Kennedy. What he kept saying — I was trying to watch it carefully — was there is a misunderstanding here he said at one point. You can test the law — when you are a politician or when you are a legislature. But he said when you respect it by testing it — but he said the way — and you change it but he said if I’m in this position I’m not changing it. I’m not testing it. I’m obeying the law. He made this point over and over.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. But Senator Kennedy came back at him and said I don’t think you are trying to test the law: I think you are trying to overturn the law.
GEORGIE ANN GEYER: He would overturn it if he could, but he has two different positions. If he is in this position of obeying the law and bringing it to the country, he will do that. If he is testing the law, he would like to change it. But I think we have to respect people for being in those two different positions.
TERENCE SMITH: Lee Cullum, is that what we want an Attorney General to do?
LEE CULLUM: We want an Attorney General to enforce the law. I guess what I’m — if he says he will enforce the law, I certainly am willing to accept that. I do feel that officials bring a certain tone to the office that they hold. And I still would be more comfortable with someone like President-elect Bush’s father chose, Dick Thornburg, former Governor of Pennsylvania — conservative but not conspicuously so. He choose William Barr — someone he had known in the CIA, who seemed to function well — someone from the mainstream would have been a wiser choice and a wiser choice to go to the polls with in 2002 and 2004. But this appointment is made now. I think he will be confirmed. And I think all we can do now is wish him well and hope he lives up to his word and expect him to.
TERENCE SMITH: Rich Hood, how relevant is it for critics of Senator Ashcroft to cite his accepting an honorary degree at Bob Jones University, his giving an interview to a southern partisan magazine. How relevant are those things to the John Ashcroft that you know?
RICHARD HOOD: Well, I have told John that I think those were not the smartest moves that he ever made. I — but I think you need to remember that he was attempting to run for President and at the time, I think he moved even farther to the right thinking that he needed to appeal to the Christian Coalition and the very right-wing of the Republican Party. So I think he thought that that made sense, but I think in connection with the job that he is being considered for now I personally wish he hadn’t done either one of those things. But I would go back to what I said earlier — this is a man of integrity. This is a man who stands straight and tall. This is a man who demanded very high standards of ethics from the people that worked for him and with him, and I have confidence that he will expect and demand the same if he is confirmed as Attorney General.
TERENCE SMITH: Cynthia Tucker, one thing we haven’t mentioned, the influence of the Attorney General over nominations to the Supreme Court. The president makes them but the Attorney General has a word, has something to stay about it. What is your view of that?
CYNTHIA TUCKER: Absolutely, absolutely, and different Attorneys General have had different levels of influence with the President. But given John Ashcroft’s record, his history, his ideology and those are important considerations here, there is every reason to believe that he will try to persuade President Bush to appoint jurists to the Supreme Court who are at best skeptical of “Roe v. Wade,” at worst committed to overturning it. I think we have also neglected to mention forcefully, although Lee mentioned it, the Attorney General’s ability to set a tone — the priorities he will choose. I do not believe that John Ashcroft will attempt to overturn the law as Attorney General — but will he enforce abortion laws vigorously? Will he vigorously enforce laws that give women free access to abortion clinics? What kind of tone will he set in terms of civil rights cases? Will he, for example, vigorously pursue the question of what happened in Florida? And whether African American voters were kept from voting?
TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Thank you all. We got to go. We are out of time. There is more to be heard from this tomorrow. Thank you.