The presidential election was one of the closest on record. The outsider from the South scratched out a narrow victory, then started putting his Cabinet together.
Yes, in 1976, the Carter-Mondale ticket narrowly defeated the Ford-Dole ticket. President-elect Jimmy Carter nominated Griffin Bell to be his attorney general, and a firestorm erupted. Senators were inundated with calls from advocacy groups with bits and pieces of information that suggested the nominee was unfit to be attorney general that he was a Carter "crony," maybe a "racist," and he would not "enforce" civil rights laws, etc. Persuaded by the torrent of allegations, I mistakenly voted against his nomination.
Fortunately, Bell was confirmed, 75 to 21, and became an outstanding attorney general. I personally apologized to him for my bad judgment, and I've done it publicly many times since. It wasn't my first or last mistake in the Senate, but it was the one that bothered me the most.
Twenty-four years later, another southern outsider has been elected president in a close election. And now, George W. Bush's choice for attorney general has sparked high-octane controversy. The long knives, which have yet to accept the Bush presidency or John Ashcroft's mainstream conservative ideas, are out to do him in with much more intensity than a quarter of a century ago.
Having served with Ashcroft in the Senate, I know why and how he has earned his reputation for integrity, compassion and hard work. My former Senate colleagues know John as a fair, God-fearing, common-sense man with the utmost respect for the rule of law. They know their obligation is to judge him on the facts notwithstanding ugly attacks, disagreements and disinformation from all sides.
Ashcroft had an impressive and notable history long before becoming a senator. In Missouri, he has been elected five times to statewide office, serving as state auditor, assistant attorney general, attorney general, governor and U.S. senator. In eight years as attorney general, he focused on making Missouri safer for its citizens. He led efforts to strengthen law enforcement, incarcerate criminals, and protect women and families and the environment. His efforts were rewarded when the National Association of Attorneys General elected him its president.
During eight years as governor, Ashcroft led the state to lower levels of crime and eight straight balanced budgets despite difficult economic times. He brought increased racial and gender diversity to Missouri's courts, and created both the Missouri Department of Health and the Missouri Office of Minority Health. Again, his colleagues recognized his leadership and elevated him to chairman of the National Governors' Assn.
In 1994, Ashcroft was elected to the U.S. Senate in a landslide. There he earned bipartisan respect and achieved legislative success as well. He helped enact charitable-choice welfare reform and juvenile justice reforms. He was a champion in the fight against methamphetamines, worked to stop school violence, helped stop the raid on Social Security and, with Sen. Russ Feingold, launched the first hearing on the indefensible practice of racial profiling.
Ashcroft is now making his case before the Senate Judiciary Committee. All committee members know and understand their special responsibility. They also know the Senate has a long and distinguished tradition of granting the president broad discretion in choosing his Cabinet. Past nomination standards have depended primarily on qualifications, competence and character. And while many senators might have ideological differences with a nominee, that shouldn't be the test.
The most recent example was Janet Reno's confirmation as attorney general in 1993. My Republican colleagues and I had philosophical disagreements with her on issue after issue, but she was qualified and was President Clinton's choice. The vote on her nomination was 98 to zero.
Today, as in 1977, some are vigorously advocating the defeat of a president-elect's choice for attorney general. I strongly urge the Senate not to repeat my mistake of listening to hostile, self-serving interest groups and their spin doctors, rather than the nominee. Ashcroft deserves to be heard and to demonstrate his exceptional qualifications for the job.
I've checked the record on the Griffin Bell confirmation vote on Jan. 25, 1977. Three key Democratic senators still in today's Senate, all now senior members of the Judiciary Committee, voted yes. Sens. Leahy, Biden and Kennedy were right then, and I was wrong.
If the Bell and Reno confirmation procedures and standards are followed, Ashcroft will be confirmed easily, and I'll bet that some who may vote no, as I did in 1977, will be asking the attorney general to accept their apology a few weeks or months from now.