(7 of 8)
And yet this episode, which they all cite today, has since had a strange way of uniting moderate Republicans behind Ashcroft. They became equally angry over what they considered a mudslinging campaign from the White House, civil rights groups and the Judiciary Committee's ranking Democrat, Patrick Leahy, in the aftermath of the vote. "Every Republican who voted against White was branded a racist," says Republican Committee member Michael DeWine, who is proud of his civil rights record. However painful it will be to relive the White vote, it would be hard for any Republican to change his mind now.
If White hopes for any kind of vindication when he is finally able to face his accuser in the ring, it may mean he does not know what the Republicans are prepared to do to win this. They threatened to call Kenny Jones, the Moniteau County, Mo., sheriff whose wife and three deputies were killed in 1991 by James Johnson, the convicted killer whom White wanted to be granted a retrial. Even beyond that case, the Republicans are prepared to argue that White was unfit for the federal bench; they are threatening to dredge up his law-school grades, his bar exam, his record as a lawyer and even details of his family life to prove Ashcroft was right about White. "People who knew about Ronnie White were willing to leave a lot of this alone," says an Ashcroft ally, "but now that's not going to be possible." But Republicans are also lining up counterarguments to the civil rights assault. Ashcroft, they point out as an example, signed Missouri's first hate-crime law and has voted for 26 out of 28 black judges. Besides, they add, he is squeaky clean, smart and a more experienced prosecutor than any of the past five Attorneys General.
It could be that Ashcroft's fate will turn on how many Democratic Senators want to teach the nominee a lesson about fair play and equal justice. White was by no means the only judge Ashcroft tripped up; Ashcroft was notorious for blocking all kinds of appointments, from the openly gay ambassadorial nominee James Hormel to Susan Oki Mollway, the first Asian-American woman to serve on the federal bench in Hawaii. In Hormel's case, Ashcroft's objections had nothing to do with his qualifications and everything to do with his lifestyle. Ashcroft would refuse even to meet with judicial nominees he opposed to hear their side of the story. "I have found him on a personal basis to be very cordial and courteous," says Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin, who claims he hasn't yet made up his mind on how he will vote. "But when we have run into political differences, I have found him to be very rigid and inflexible."
Only a few Senators will talk about it openly, but the feeling runs strong among Democrats that what was good for their nominees may now be good for Ashcroft--even if he is ultimately confirmed. Senators traditionally respect a President's right to pick people who share his views; but, Democrats charge, that was one tradition Ashcroft did not honor himself. "Many of the pleas for fairness that will be made at his hearing were the same pleas that we made of him during the past few years when it came to judicial nominees," Durbin says. "You can understand why a lot of us are listening to these pleas for fairness with mixed feelings."
--Reported by Ann Blackman, James Carney, Massimo Calabresi, Douglas Waller, Michael Weisskopf and Adam Zagorin/Washington