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But does he? Ashcroft is also a man who said there are two things you find in the middle of the road: "a moderate and a dead skunk. And I don't want to be either one of those." To his conservative allies, he is St. John the Divine; to opponents, all the talk of his integrity and personal grace masks a record from deep right field. But Ashcroft is also more complicated than the cartoons suggest. If he is so polarizing, how was he elected five times in a swing state? Is he the libertarian who fought alongside liberals to keep the government from prying into encrypted computer files or the bedroom policeman who opposed an ambassadorial candidate on the grounds that he was openly gay? Personally abstemious, he banned alcohol from the Governor's mansion during his eight years in office and vetoed a bill allowing Sunday alcohol sales, and yet his fifth largest campaign contributor was Anheuser-Busch. He has worked fervently to outlaw all abortions unless the mother's life is at risk, and yet his website touts his record and priorities as Governor and Senator and makes no mention whatsoever of abortion. What do you make of a man who is caricatured as Cotton Mather but who is known among his friends for his gospel singing, piano playing, his love of dirt bikes and his ability to spear a carp on a 12-ft. pole? What do you make of a man who has in his barn a 7-ft. statue he crafted of the Statue of Liberty? He made it of barbed wire.
Ashcroft grew up in rural Springfield, Mo., a green and rolling part of the state that has voted Republican since the Civil War. Back when Missouri sent 10 Democrats to Congress, Springfield was the lone Republican holdout. It was free-labor, antiunion territory, with antislave, Bible-belt, mountain people. Young John was the middle son of a renowned Pentecostal educator and minister. His was a strict and loving household, childhood friends say, where smoking, drinking and dancing were forbidden, and Sundays were for prayer and study, not work or play. When John was a teenager, he and his brother Wesley used to spend weekends at their family's cabin on the Lake of the Ozarks. John would always say to his brother, "Wes, what is our objective for the weekend?" It had to be something they had never done before, like water-ski on one ski or barefoot or on canoe paddles. "John was never satisfied until he got it perfected," says his old baby-sitter Norma Champion.
Ashcroft was a big man at his high school; he aimed higher than the average Springfield kid, went East to college and arrived at Yale just a few years before Bush. A childhood friend says Ashcroft's father had given him the name of an Assemblies of God church in New Haven, and Ashcroft duly showed up his first Sunday and announced his presence to the minister, who was not accustomed to seeing many Yalies in his congregation. He saw Ashcroft every week for four years.
After law school at the University of Chicago, where Ashcroft met his wife Janet, he taught law for five years in Springfield. Without a whole lot of plotting--he noticed the Republican congressional candidate was unopposed in the primary--Ashcroft ran for Congress in 1972. "It is not logical," his father recalled his son saying, "to criticize the government if you aren't willing to do your part to improve it."