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As he prepares for his Senate confirmation hearing, it’s hard to say just when John Ashcroft has enjoyed his defining moment as a career politician. It could come when the attorney general-designate is subjected to a promised grilling by Senate Democrats over his positions on race and abortion. It could have been last November, when a disappointed Ashcroft graciously conceded his U.S. Senate seat to Sen. Jean Carnahan, the wife of his deceased opponent, after a razor-thin defeat. But it just as easily could have happened more than 20 years ago, when Ashcroft was a first-term Missouri attorney general. In 1979, Ashcroft was asked to render a legal opinion regarding whether organizations could distribute religious material to students while on public school grounds. Ashcroft, the son of a Pentecostal minister, and, by all accounts, a deeply religious man, personally favored allowing student groups to hand out religious literature. But that wasn’t what he supported. “While the advance of religious beliefs is considered by me, and I believe most people, to be desirable,” Ashcroft wrote in the opinion, “this office is compelled by the weight of the law to conclude that school boards may not allow the use of the public schools to assist in this effort.” Harvey Tettlebaum, a Jefferson City, Mo., lawyer who worked with Ashcroft in the Missouri attorney general’s office at the time, says the opinion epitomizes Ashcroft’s approach to public life. “John Ashcroft is a person who has always done his duty,” Tettlebaum says, “whether he liked it or not.” This week, whether Ashcroft can set aside his personal convictions will be at the heart of the Senate’s inquiry. Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee will ask Ashcroft, for example, whether his personal — and vehement — opposition to abortion will prevent him from enforcing laws intended to protect abortion providers from violence. Tettlebaum, who has known Ashcroft for decades, doesn’t doubt Ashcroft’s answer. “If the individual’s record in public office demonstrates that that individual can separate his identity from his duty, then he should be confirmed,” he says. “And that’s John Ashcroft’s record.” Not surprisingly for a man whose nomination to be attorney general has proved so polarizing, others in Missouri who have known and watched Ashcroft during his almost 30 years in politics don’t agree. And that may have been why Ashcroft suffered an unlikely defeat last fall as an incumbent Republican senator in a conservative Midwestern state. “Ashcroft alienated a large group of different organizations and communities with his extremist views on issues,” says Paula Kanyo, executive director of the Missouri chapter of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. “We have held a raging war with a lot of his views and votes.” The Rev. B.T. Rice, a St. Louis pastor and former head of a coalition of area churches, was more succinct about why Ashcroft lost his Senate seat. “There were thousands of people who had never gone to the polls before who went to knock out John Ashcroft,” Rice says. RELIGIOUS BACKGROUND The nation will finally get to find out who John Ashcroft is this week, something that George W. Bush’s transition team hasn’t made easy. Ashcroft, who was one of the more vocal members of the Senate during his six years there, has been — as is typical for cabinet nominees — kept under wraps since Bush nominated him as his attorney general in December. Ashcroft was born in 1942, the son of J. Robert Ashcroft, a pastor and college president. The senior Ashcroft was a dominant figure in the Assemblies of God Church in the family’s hometown of Springfield, Mo. And the younger Ashcroft lived the life of a minister’s son. “I am grateful for my Assemblies of God heritage,” Ashcroft told a Pentecostal publication in 1998. “I lived in a very strict home. We honored the Sabbath — no bicycle riding, for example. I thought that was a distinct disadvantage when I was a young fellow. But the longer I live, the more grateful I am for not just a Sunday existence that related to God, but a through-the-week culture focused on eternal values rather than temporal satisfaction.” Ashcroft doesn’t drink, smoke, dance, or swear, making him sound about as much fun as the minister character in the movie “Footloose.” But friends say Ashcroft is affable, even funny, with a humble, self-deprecating sense of humor. Ashcroft’s religious beliefs are sincere. He famously anointed himself with oil on the day he was sworn in as a senator in 1995. And he led a daily prayer session with his Senate staff each morning. If Ashcroft is confirmed as attorney general, he will hold the highest office ever held by a member of his Pentecostal faith. Pentecostalism differs from fundamentalist Christianity in that it emphasizes “the gifts of the Holy Spirit” rather than a literal reading of the Bible. There are about 24 million Pentecostalists in the United States. It is the fastest growing religious group in the world. Pentecostalism is a more emotional and musical form of Christianity. Some of its practitioners are known for “speaking in tongues” and for anointing themselves using oil as a symbol for the Holy Spirit. Two of its most famous representatives are the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart and the Rev. Jim Bakker. But Ashcroft has maintained that his faith forbids him from pushing his religious views on others. Harvey Tettlebaum attests to that. “I knew him. I’ve traveled with him when he was attorney general,” Tettlebaum says. “I’m Jewish, and he has never put me in a position where I felt he was trying to foist his views on me.” A Yale graduate who received his law degree from the University of Chicago in 1967, Ashcroft does not flaunt his accomplishments, say those who know him. “The average person on the street would never know that Ashcroft went to Yale,” says Jerry Hunter, a St. Louis lawyer who served in Ashcroft’s Cabinet. “I’ve never heard him say he went to an Ivy League school.” Ashcroft is also a singer and a songwriter. He played the piano during his second gubernatorial inauguration. He was part of a group in Congress known as “The Singing Senators” and is famous for strumming a guitar at political rallies. He often sings a song he wrote about America called “Let the Eagle Soar.” Let the eagle soar Like she’s never soared before. From rocky coast to golden shore, Let the mighty eagle soar Soar with healing in her wings As the land beneath her sings, “Only God, no other kings.” “He does sing gospel songs; he’s not ashamed of his religion, but I’ve never seen him shove his views down anyone’s throat,” says Rick Hardy, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia. “If we respect Joe Lieberman for his views, we ought to respect John Ashcroft.” CLIMBING THE LADDER Ashcroft has been a professional politician since the early 1970s, when he was appointed to the Missouri auditor’s office. After he lost his bid for re-election, he joined the state attorney general’s office as an assistant attorney general in 1974, where he served under John Danforth. Danforth was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1976 and Ashcroft was appointed his successor. Ashcroft’s two-term tenure as attorney general was marked most notably by two things: an aggressive pro-consumer stance and a continuing crusade against abortion. Ashcroft’s office recovered millions of dollars for Missouri citizens by filing a number of antitrust suits and enforcing anti-fraud laws. He set up a consumer hotline and backed pro-consumer initiatives in the state legislature. A favorite weapon was price-fixing cases. He went after milk and beer distributors, construction, real estate, gasoline sales, and roofing companies. Not all of his antitrust cases were popular. Ashcroft filed an antitrust action against the National Organization for Women in 1978, after NOW urged groups across the country to boycott Missouri for its failure to support the Equal Rights Amendment. Ashcroft claimed the boycott cost Missouri $20 million a year in convention business. He lost the federal suit, but appealed it to the U.S. Supreme Court before conceding. Abortion, though, was a primary focus. Missouri has served as a battleground over the issue for more than 20 years, as its legislature has pushed for ways to weaken Roe v. Wade. As attorney general, Ashcroft asked the state employee retirement board to stop providing health coverage for abortions. And he took a case defending a controversial Missouri abortion restriction to the Supreme Court in 1983. Ashcroft personally argued the case, Planned Parenthood Association v. Ashcroft, and scored what was termed a large victory by the anti-abortion movement by having the parental notification provision in the law upheld as constitutional. “It was the first case where the court upheld a parental consent law,” says Sam Lee, a lobbyist for Missouri Citizens for Life, an anti-abortion rights group. “That’s a big deal.” Lee says that Ashcroft, who moved from the attorney general’s office to the governor’s office in 1985, has always been a friend of the anti-abortion movement. “We could get to his staff. He was always there, and we were grateful,” Lee says. “In that job, it’s better to have a friend than an enemy.” For each of his eight years as governor, Ashcroft issued a proclamation on the anniversary of the Roe decision “memorializing the children killed by abortion throughout the country,” Lee says. “It was like clockwork. All eight years.” That’s what troubles NARAL’s Paula Kanyo. “The problem about him is not that he is opposed to abortion, but that I don’t think he will protect women and their existing rights,” she says. As governor, Ashcroft continued to uphold laws that he personally opposed. In 1985, although opposed to gambling in any form, he signed Missouri’s first lottery law. At the time, he said, “The real lottery jackpot is the pot of gold it generates for the education of our young people.” Says Tettlebaum: “He doesn’t believe in gambling. He thought it was bad public policy.” Both as attorney general and governor, Ashcroft angered African-American leaders with his vocal opposition to school desegregation plans in St. Louis and Kansas City. As governor, he forced the schools to pay for the costs of desegregation out of state education budget, straining the system’s resources. A Kansas City federal judge ultimately ordered that the costs be paid out of a court-ordered tax increase. When Ashcroft was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1994, that decision — and the judge, Russell Clark — would be a frequent target of his mounting attacks on “judicial activism.” DOWN TO THE WIRE As early as 1998, it was clear that Ashcroft was going to face a serious challenge in his bid to retain his Senate seat. Missouri’s popular Democratic governor, Mel Carnahan, decided to take Ashcroft on. The campaign between the two was bitter, with neither side pulling punches. Carnahan hammered Ashcroft’s successful effort in the Senate to prevent Ronnie White, an African-American state Supreme Court justice, from serving on the federal bench. Ashcroft claimed that Carnahan inflated his own military service record, supported partial-birth abortions, and was anti-death penalty. The state Republican Party released photos of Carnahan performing in the 1960s wearing blackface — something for which he apologized. “Both Ashcroft and Carnahan were tarnished in the campaign,” says Sam Lee. “No question about it.” The African-American community in St. Louis mobilized in opposition to Ashcroft, mainly, says Pastor Rice, over the Ronnie White issue. “He killed that man’s future,” Rice says. “He did it from a racist background. It was unconscionable. We could not forget it. We kept it before the public. And on Election Day, the African-American community went out in record numbers to send John Ashcroft a message.” But Ashcroft’s supporters point to the fact that, as governor, Ashcroft formed a committee to celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. Jerry Hunter, an African-American who headed the state’s Labor Department under Ashcroft, was a member of that committee. Hunter says that Ashcroft then threw his support behind an apparently stalled legislative effort to create a state holiday for King. It passed easily in 1986. Hunter says he went to Ashcroft’s office to thank him for supporting the holiday, and Hunter says Ashcroft told him, “You don’t have to thank me. It was the right thing to do.” Ashcroft appointed eight black judges to the Missouri courts while governor. But that doesn’t pacify Rice, who charges that Ashcroft’s targeting of Ronnie White undid any positive result of Ashcroft’s tenure. “It’s like saying that I had 10 black people, but I only lynched one,” Rice says. Ashcroft and Carnahan were within percentage points of each other in the senate race when Carnahan was killed in a plane crash last September. Ashcroft’s supporters contend that Ashcroft was going to win the election, but Carnahan’s death changed that. “Mel Carnahan was elevated to martyrdom,” says political science professor Hardy. His approval ratings grew by 20 percent overnight. At the same time, Ashcroft shut down his campaign, angering some supporters. When Carnahan’s widow, Jean, announced she was taking her husband’s place, Ashcroft didn’t campaign against her. “Ashcroft was faced with a real dilemma,” Hardy says. “Who did he run against?” Ashcroft lost by a handful of votes. But unlike Vice President Al Gore, he didn’t challenge the result. Instead, he conceded, adding, “I hope the outcome of this election is a matter of comfort to Mrs. Carnahan. And I hope that we can all accord her the opportunity to have the kind of necessary recovery time after such a great personal loss.” Tettlebaum, Ashcroft’s friend of 30 years, says he was impressed. “You lose, and you lose in a way because this tragedy occurred that you had nothing to do with,” he says. “It was incredibly gracious. That’s the John Ashcroft I know.”

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