How Bush Chose Ashcroft
Was George W. Bush trying to pick a fight when he chose one of
the most outspoken conservatives in the Senate to be his
Attorney General? The short answer is no.
Ashcroft was not Bush's first choice for AG--or even his second.
Bush wanted his fellow Governor and fishing pal Marc Racicot of
Montana for the job. A conservative with a moderate temperament
and a pragmatic approach, Racicot would have drawn only token
opposition from Democrats--much of it owing to his star turn as a
Bush spokesman during the postelection battle in Florida. But
Racicot had more problems on the right than on the left.
Complaints about his allegedly shaky conservative credentials
ricocheted around Washington last month, then got dumped on
Bush's political troubleshooter Karl Rove. When Racicot declined
the job, conservative leaders rejoiced, and some boasted
privately that they had forced him out.
Rove and others insist that isn't so. In fact, Rove was in the
middle of defending Racicot's record on taxes to Grover Norquist,
head of Americans for Tax Reform, when Rove's cell phone rang.
Bush was on the line with some bad news: Racicot had called and
asked not to be considered. "Bush was heartbroken," says a top
aide. Bush was so set on Racicot that he had few alternatives in
mind. Frank Keating, the Oklahoma Governor, had been considered,
but his acceptance of about $250,000 in personal cash gifts from
financier Jack Dreyfus over the years--and Keating's modest
efforts to help Dreyfus promote a mood-altering drug for use in
prisons--made him too risky a choice. (Bush insiders say Keating
might well be Vice President-elect right now if it hadn't been
for all the money he received from Dreyfus. "It was legal," says
one, "but it just doesn't look good.")
That left Ashcroft. After the Missouri Senator lost his seat to
the late Mel Carnahan on Nov. 7, conservatives lobbied hard for
him. But Bush didn't need much coaxing. Ashcroft's background--a
former state attorney general and Governor--was similar to
Racicot's and Keating's. And as far as Bush was concerned, having
someone of Ashcroft's deep faith as Attorney General would be a
plus in the wake of the Clinton scandals.
Bush knew Ashcroft mostly by reputation when the Missourian flew
to Austin on Dec. 20, but had long considered him the kind of guy
he wanted for AG. Bush's father knew Ashcroft well, and Rove had
done campaign work for him since 1985 and assured Bush that
Ashcroft was solid. In the meeting, Bush made it clear that he
expected his Cabinet members to be team players, not independent
operators. And he quizzed the Senator about his views on
enforcing civil rights law. By then, several key moderate Senate
Republicans had told Dick Cheney that Ashcroft would make a fine
Attorney General. And Ashcroft had sounded out some Democratic
Senators who promised to support him. His gracious concession
after losing to a dead man had won him some goodwill in the other
party. In his meeting with Bush, Ashcroft predicted he would be
confirmed without much fuss.
He was wrong. Ashcroft is said to be surprised by the vitriolic
opposition his nomination has drawn from liberals. And Bush aides
weren't expecting such an ugly fight. But they're not shying away
from it. Rove and others have told Bush that spilling some blood
over Ashcroft is "a no-lose proposition." "It'll make our base
happy," says a top adviser. "And it'll be over in two weeks."
Bush may not have been trying to start a war with the left, but
he's willing to wage one.
--By James Carney