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Archive for Monday, February 5, 2001

Will nominees repent, reform?

February 5, 2001

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— And so we conclude our confirmation coverage with a replay of one last Bob Smith rant.

A day before the Senate confirmed John Ashcroft as attorney general, the New Hampshire Republican took after opponents, bitterly complaining that the Democrats were using criteria that would have disqualified "the pope, Mother Teresa and all the cardinals in the United States from becoming attorney general."

Of course, Mother Teresa is resting in peace, the pope has a good gig in Rome, and the cardinals, as far as I know, are already disqualified. But Smith blissfully missed the point. Indeed strayed off message.

In the end, John Ashcroft didn't get confirmed because he's a true believer. He passed the test by telling his peers it wouldn't matter.

The man from Missouri promised to check his personal beliefs at the door of Justice. Indeed, Ashcroft's supporters saluted this vow to uphold laws he thinks are immoral by praising his "integrity."

It's been that kind of week. Both Cabinet nominees who won the label "controversial" seemed transformed by merely appearing before the Senate.

Consider Gale Norton, whose most reassuring credential so far for overseeing 436 million acres of public land has been her description as an avid outdoorswoman who got married on a mountaintop.

Did she once believe that industry could regulate itself? At the hearings, she promised the Senate to "make the conservation of America's resources my top priority."

Did she formerly represent lead companies as their lawyer and belong to a group that sued the EPA over endangered species? Now, she told the senators, she would "support the Endangered Species Act" as a "passionate conservationist."

And did she begin as a James Watt protege? Not anymore. Norton's spin was nothing compared to Ashcroft's pirouettes. The ardent, indeed missionary, opponent of abortion rights, gay rights and gun control is a man too cozy with Bob Jones and too hostile to Ronnie White. But when he came to the Senate as a supplicant not a member, he recast himself as neutral law enforcer. "I understand that being attorney general means enforcing the laws as they are written, not enforcing my personal preferences," he said.

At one point, Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley praised Ashcroft as "unequivocally a man of his word." But which word? The word of the man who had wished for "but a single law" banning all abortions? Or the word of the nominee who said he understood that Roe vs. Wade was "established law"?

Is it only in Washington that the last "word" is the only one that counts?

"I respect his passion," said Maryland's Barbara Mikulski, "but I don't know how you can believe something so passionately one day, and (then) say you're going to put it on the shelf."

Is it only in Washington that a Senate full of lawyers praises the character of a man who puts his deepest moral beliefs on a shelf for a "client"?

I kept trying to imagine these hearings as any other employment interview. Would you hire someone who ran away from his or her track record? What about an applicant dismissing his resume as "history"?

Of course, in the spirit of 'faith week,' I believe in growing and changing. In an era when anyone below Strom Thurmond's age is entitled to claim youthful indiscretion, there is room for midcourse corrections.

Moreover, there is good news in "confirmation conversion." Today even someone willing to violate the Alaskan wilderness must frame herself as an environmentalist. Even the far right's choice for attorney general must put on a moderate face. We know where the mainstream flows.

But my confidence in a genuine change of heart is way below that of Connecticut's Chris Dodd. Breaking ranks with Democrats to vote for Ashcroft, Dodd said, "As the saying goes, 'There is no sinner without a future and no saint without a past."'

Repentance? Has Norton actually become an environmentalist? Has Ashcroft become a true civil libertarian? Shall we pray? Or do you wanna bet?




Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

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