So you fought a long and painful battle to become President of the U.S., and it will soon, at last, be Inauguration Day. The Bible your dad used is back for the swearing in, 16,000 yellow roses, 500 lbs. of peach cobbler, tons of fireworks and Ricky Martin are all being readied for the gala celebrations, and you have only yourself to blame if all people remember from this historic week is the historically ugly struggle you ignited in the halls of the U.S. Senate. George W. Bush says he picked John Ashcroft, his nominee to become Attorney General, because Ashcroft is "a good man...a good attorney." Both in public and in private the Bush team is confident he will be confirmed. But the team can only begin to calculate the cost. Ashcroft's nomination has become the latest battle in America's Forty Years' War, a fight over race and culture and politics that runs from the civil rights movement to the Clarence Thomas hearings to the showdown in Tallahassee that gave Bush his presidency in a way that left many black Americans feeling that their voices and their votes did not count. Now the President who promised to be a uniter, not a divider, faces opposition to Ashcroft from virtually every liberal interest group: feminists, greens, gay-rights and gun-control advocates and, above all, civil rights organizations that charge Ashcroft with exploiting race for political gain throughout his career.
And that means that the President-elect, who told TIME several weeks ago that the greatest misconception about him is that he is racially insensitive, is now defending a key nominee in a fight so fierce it may once again be hard to tell the difference between winning and losing. There are Democrats publicly denouncing Ashcroft and privately praying he survives, so they can raise money and inflame partisans for years to come. There are Republicans publicly pledging their support and privately wondering why Bush chose a man who all but guaranteed that the era of good feeling would be over before his presidency even begins.
Is it possible that Bush did not see this coming? He told friends he thought Ashcroft would sail through because the Senate protects its own, the Republicans would support whatever a new President wanted, and Ashcroft believed he had the Democrats under control. It is true that Bush spent many days and nights of the Florida war down at his ranch with the TV off and the radio turned down. Was that cool detachment, as his aides claimed, or does he perhaps not see the depth of the wounds he is so confident he can heal?
Bush said last week he had talked at length with Ashcroft, especially about civil rights, and was convinced of his integrity and his fairness. They are in some ways kindred spirits, though Bush came late to the values Ashcroft has always held. Sources tell TIME that Bush was thinking about Ashcroft as a possible Attorney General as early as March 1998--a full year before Bush admitted he was running for President. (Bush didn't know him well, but Bush's father did--and had even considered him for Attorney General in 1991.) Bush has mentioned Ashcroft in sentences that also include the words Supreme Court. "I like him not only because he's a born-again Christian," Bush told a friend, "but because he's a Governor. He knows how to compromise."