Advise and Consent: Senators Discuss the Ashcroft Nomination
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JIM LEHRER: The fight over John Ashcroft. Tomorrow, confirmation hearings begin in the Senate on Ashcroft’s nomination to be Attorney General of the United States. They are expected to last three days, and to be most spirited. For some perspective on the Senate’s advise-and-consent role in Presidential nominations, we go to four former Senators: Republicans Warren Rudman of New Hampshire and Jake Garn of Utah, Democrats Paul Simon of Illinois and David Boren of Oklahoma. Senator Garn, is John Ashcroft receiving proper and fair treatment from his opponents in the Senate?
FORMER SEN. JAKE GARN, (R) Utah: Well, first of all, Jim, I start from the premise that unless there’s something very, very seriously wrong with the nominee that a President is entitled to his nominees. I don’t recall in my 18 years in the Senate voting against a Presidential nominee, either Republican or Democratic, so the issue isn’t whether I agree with them on all issues. Are they qualified? Are they good people? And I certainly think John Ashcroft is and he should be approved.
JIM LEHRER: So any challenge to him then, you would consider improper, is that correct?
FORMER SEN. JAKE GARN: Well, from what I’ve heard so far, I think it’s entirely improper. And I really hate to see the politics of self-destruction, of people looking for personal things, the charges that were brought up today are absolutely ridiculous. They don’t like his stands on abortion and some other issues so they’re out scouring trying to find something to defeat him. I think that’s wrong. I remember what good friends Hubert Humphrey and Barry Goldwater were. I have very good friends in the Senate who are very liberal Democrats. I don’t choose my friends or associates on the basis of their political party. The Senate has become too nasty in my opinion. And John Ashcroft should be approved. I think he’s qualified and he deserves to be approved for that office.
JIM LEHRER: Senator Simon, is John Ashcroft being treated wrongly and unfairly by your former Democratic colleagues in the Senate?
FORMER SEN. PAUL SIMON, (D) Illinois: I don’t think so. If he were up for Secretary of Transportation or Secretary of Commerce, there would be no question at all. He’s up for a very sensitive position. And there’s no question he’s honest, he’s bright, you know, he’s capable. But there are also questions of his attitude on civil rights, on civil liberties, and those questions ought to be pursued and I think members of the Senate ought to keep their minds open until the next three days of hearings have been held.
JIM LEHRER: So his views on the issues, as far as you’re concerned, speak to his qualifications as Attorney General?
FORMER SEN. PAUL SIMON: I think they cause some unease when his opposition to the federal judge nominee, his opposition to school desegregation in St. Louis and Kansas City, a number of things — his stands on school prayer issue. These are things I think the Senate very appropriately asks questions about. And I would add historically at the very first hearings on advice and consent, the Senate invited George Washington to come to the Senate to consult with them. And George Washington said, no, I don’t want to do that. You ought to do this on your own. And if you have any unease about a nominee, then that nominee should be rejected.
JIM LEHRER: Senator Boren, how do you see the role of a Senate in this and other Presidential nominations of cabinet members?
FORMER SEN. DAVID BOREN, (D) Oklahoma: Well, I find myself in agreement in some of what both of my colleagues just said a moment ago. I think in general, a President should be allowed his cabinet. After all he has to govern, and I think the President should have the ability to select those people that he wants to work with him hand in glove. And, obviously those are going to be people that share his policy viewpoints. I do think in the case of the Attorney General that since this is an office which is intimately involved with enforcement of the law, also with the selection of judgeships, judges will fill these scores of vacancies around the country that perhaps a higher standard really applies here. For example, I voted consistently — I started with a presumption in favor of cabinet nominees by any President, whether a Republican or Democratic President. But as I look back on it, I think it’s a different standard applies when you’re considering judicial nominations and to some degree– not as much as with a judge– but to some degree with an Attorney General. So I think that I am concerned about the outside groups, this sort of going toward the 32nd spots, the attack press conferences. The Senate shouldn’t be swayed by that. And members of the Senate should not rush to judgment. They should remember, they’re dealing with individual human beings, not pawns in a political chess game. And those individuals are entitled to a fair, thorough consideration. I hope nobody will make up their minds against Mr. Ashcroft before they weigh the hearings. And I think the test of fairness will come in the hearings themselves.
JIM LEHRER: When you say a standard, where do you come down on this issue of whether or not a Senator should judge an Attorney General-nominee, to be specific, based on his conduct, based on his past history or whatever, or just… and eliminate what he feels or believes on issues? I didn’t say that well but you know what I mean.
FORMER SEN. DAVID BOREN: I understand. I think you weigh the beliefs. You weigh the policy positions to some degree. But mainly you’re trying to determine whether or not this person can carry out the law even if he happens to disagree with the law as it is currently stated. You may vote as a Senator to change the law. But if you’re attorney general, you’re obliged to uphold the law as it is. For example, when I was chairman of the Intelligence Committee, I was there in a stewardship position. We were told certain things, a group of eight people in the Congress were told things, highly secret things that no other members of the Congress were told. It wasn’t my responsibility to decide whether or not David Boren approved or disapproved of that action. It was my job to determine what would the American people have thought if they knew it? What would the rest of the Congress have thought if they knew it? So you have a stewardship role. In those roles you have to separate yourself from your own policy views. I think the hearings should focus on that: Does John Ashcroft have the ability, even though he has strong and sincerely felt convictions to carry out the law in those areas where the law may depart from his own personal views.
JIM LEHRER: Senator Rudman, do you see that as the issue?
FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN, (R) New Hampshire: I look at it a bit differently, although it’s not surprising that I can agree with something each of my friends said. They’re three reasonable people and they acted that way in the Senate. It seems to me you have to draw some lines here. When you’re looking at a cabinet nominee, the President should have great deference. Ideology per se should not count unless it’s extreme. When you’re looking at a judicial nominee, the President is entitled to very little deference because that person will be there for a long time. Let’s look at Ashcroft in particular. He served as Attorney General of his state, Governor and United States Senator. He is very conservative. I disagree, and I’m a Republican, with a number of his positions but I don’t think that’s the issue. The issue is, is this a man of integrity, of honesty? Is this man a racist, as some have alleged, or did he have strong views about one judge? If you satisfy yourself that this person is fair and reasonable and decent and meets American values, then you vote for him. If you think there’s something really lacking in integrity or in his view towards race, then I think down deep you have to say that is not in the mainstream of the American people and you vote against him. But I don’t believe that they’re going to find very much in his record that is going to indicate that he will not enforce the law. Let me give you a personal story. As my colleagues know, I was Attorney General of my state for six years. New Hampshire had some very unusual statutes on its books, which I did not agree with, but there was no question if there was a violation of one of those statutes as to what my constitutional duty was. John Ashcroft, as I know him, it seems to me is not going to inject his personal views into how he enforces the law. So let me sum up, if they find something of a deeply flawed character that is against American values, that’s one thing. If it is simply ideology, that’s something else. Let me respond to my friend, David Boren. One member of the Senate at least, I’d like David to know who is down in Oklahoma not up here and reading the daily press has already come out against John Ashcroft. I think that is dead wrong. I think everyone is entitled to a fair hearing and then people should make up their minds.
JIM LEHRER: What about those who come out in favor before the hearing?
FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: Frankly, I don’t think that’s a good idea either because sometimes you can get very badly surprised as I’ve seen happen.
JIM LEHRER: Senator Garn, what about this issue that Senator Boren just outlined and Senator Rudman just commented on, that the real issue for John Ashcroft is, will he strongly enforce laws that he was opposed to when they became law? How do you feel about that?
FORMER SEN. JAKE GARN: Well, I certainly believe that he will. But beyond that, I would agree with both of my friends that it doesn’t make any difference who you put in as Attorney General as long as they are honest, they have integrity, they can’t exercise their personal views. They can’t change the law. John Ashcroft would have to enforce it. When I was mayor of Salt Lake City, there were some ordinances that I didn’t agree with. My responsibility was to try and get the city council to change them, but as long as that was the law, regardless of my personal feelings, I had to see that they were enforced. And I think that is absolutely true of any Attorney General, whether I agree philosophically with him or not, I have a lot of differences of opinion with Janet Reno, but she has enforced the law. She has carried out her responsibilities. So I think Warren has put that in absolutely the correct light, that that’s how we judge. And I get back to my opening statement: Unless it’s something really egregious, really out of line, you should not judge them on the basis of their philosophy but their background, their experience, their integrity. And I’m sure that John Ashcroft, just like Warren did when he was Attorney General, will enforce the laws of this land.
JIM LEHRER: Senator Simon, you see it differently, do you not?
FORMER SEN. PAUL SIMON: Just slightly. I think that David Boren is correct when he says there’s a little higher standard for the Attorney General because there are a lot of marginal decisions that have to be made about who is to be prosecuted. There are they are decisions on who is going to be a federal judge for life. The Attorney General ordinarily makes recommendations to the President on who can serve in the United States Supreme Court. So I think that– and I think Warren Rudman is correct: People on both sides ought to refrain from saying, “I’m going to vote for him or I’m going to vote against him” but let’s have a vigorous hearing and ask the questions that should be asked and then make a decision.
JIM LEHRER: Senator Simon, if you were still in the Senate and you were on the Senate Judiciary Committee, what would be the principal question you would ask John Ashcroft tomorrow?
FORMER SEN. PAUL SIMON: Well, I would want to know what kind of standards he would have for selecting federal judges. I would want to know what his strong anti-gun control views, how they might affect this. I think the whole question of race is very important — also his views on church and state separation. Either he misunderstands the Supreme Court decisions on school prayer, or he has views that would trouble me. I think he ought to have a chance to clarify that.
JIM LEHRER: Senator Boren, what would be your principal line of questioning if you were there tomorrow?
FORMER SEN. DAVID BOREN: I would ask the same questions that Senator Simon said he would ask. I would want to probe a little bit about why he would have accepted an honorary degree from Bob Jones University because that, I’d want to make sure that the acceptance of that degree didn’t in any way indicate his basic commitment in the area of civil rights. But, you know, Jim, I think really whether or not the hearings will be… have a positive impact or not depends not only on the integrity of the nominee, it also depends upon the integrity of the individual Senators who will be sitting there in that process. I happen to have been one of the two Democrats who voted for the nomination of Robert Bork, and the Robert Bork nomination started a process which I deplored, the attack spots, the huge write-in campaigns, the oversimplification. I still don’t believe that Judge Bork’s views were accurately portrayed to the American people. I think whether or not the members of the Senate should sit there– this is one case where they shouldn’t take a poll or listen to extreme views of groups on the right or left. They should sit there with the integrity and do what the Senate is supposed to do, and that is deliberate. And I think again the main issue is regardless of what views John Ashcroft may have had as a Senator, does he have the personal character and the personal integrity to carry out the laws and to be a faithful steward in that office of Attorney General of our legal system? That’s the main question, and I don’t think any minds should be made up before the hearings and the Senators must act with integrity.
JIM LEHRER: Senator Rudman, what questions would you ask?
FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: I would ask him a question on the abortion issue because it’s been raised essentially by Senator Simon, a legitimate point. I personally am pro-choice. We have Roe versus Wade. We have a series of United States Supreme Court cases guaranteeing that right. I would want to assure myself that he understands and although his view is quite different that he will vigorously enforce the law as it has been by his predecessors, many of whom disagreed with it. That would be my serious question. But frankly, if that were satisfactory and I expect it would be, I would simply want to make sure that this was a man of integrity, of honesty who believes in the law being enforced by the chief law enforcement officer of the country. If he satisfied me on that, I would certainly vote for him. And let me add one thing — David Boren is absolutely right. There ought to be a civil and reasonable and intellectual exchange between members of the panel and the nominee.
JIM LEHRER: We’ll see. We’ll see — beginning tomorrow. Thank you all four very much.