John Ashcroft makes Missouri feel frozen in time.

Cold Truth 

John Ashcroft makes Missouri feel frozen in time.

For a few warm days back in October, Missouri felt like a place of honor. After Governor Mel Carnahan died in a plane crash, politicians laid their bad blood to rest -- in public at least. Beneath the silence of John Ashcroft's suspended campaign and Jean Carnahan's two-week retreat into mourning, the hostilities continued. But when voters rejected the senator in favor of the dead man, even people who hated Ashcroft were moved by his concession speech.

Missouri's grace lasted only until December 22, when George W. Bush announced he'd found Ashcroft a new job. The state's voters had just said no to the "Missouri values" championed by the race-baiting, right-wing-courting chauvinist with the virtuous veneer. That Bush would make him attorney general -- a position more powerful than the Senate seat Missourians had denied him -- induced the first jolt of nausea.

And in the gray of January, Missouri has felt ugly. Ashcroft's confirmation hearings turned into a pukey lesson in the state's history dating back to the doomed Equal Rights Amendment. (God forbid Congress should make a law declaring women equal to men.)

What Ashcroft did in 1999 to Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White stank so bad that elected officials from other states still were trying to clear the air. After White took the stand on the third day of hearings, everyone from Arlen Specter to Ted Kennedy apologized for how the fraternity had treated him. The Senate had rejected White's appointment to the federal bench after Ashcroft accused him of being "pro-criminal." Even if they never said so, the senators knew Ashcroft had used White as fodder in his Senate race against Carnahan, who'd commuted a death sentence at the pope's request.

In anti-Ashcroft testimony, Missouri came off looking like Mississippi. Among the dregs: Ashcroft tried to criminalize nurses, St. Louis attorney Frank Susman pointed out. He tried to outlaw most types of contraception when he cosponsored the Human Life Act, said Kate Michelman of the National Abortion Rights Action League. In the early '90s, Ashcroft used a line-item veto to cut miniscule amounts of money for domestic violence programs, noted Marcia Greenberger of the National Women's Law Center. In 1980, he vetoed a maternity leave law more limited than the Family and Medical Leave Act he would be charged with enforcing as U.S. attorney general. He twice vetoed acts establishing a minimum wage -- when, Greenberger said, "Missouri was one of only six states without a state minimum wage law."

Greenberger testified that Ashcroft had pressed all the way to the Supreme Court for a law automatically terminating parental rights to a child born after an attempted abortion. How could Ashcroft uphold Roe v. Wade, women wondered, when he'd spent his professional life trying to overturn it? "It would be unthinkable to confirm an attorney general who built a career on dismantling Brown v. the Board of Education," Michelman said. (Plenty of other witnesses later told the country all about Missouri's progressive record on school desegregation.)

Harriett Woods, who served under Ashcroft as Missouri's lieutenant governor -- she was the first woman elected to statewide office and later headed the National Women's Political Caucus -- took everyone back to 1978. That was when Ashcroft prosecuted the National Organization for Women for boycotting the state because it had refused to ratify the ERA.

The witnesses raced through details about his backwater policies in their few allotted minutes.

Then came Representative Kenny Hulshof, a Republican from Columbia. Hulshof prosecuted James Johnson, who in 1991 had murdered three sheriff's deputies and a sheriff's wife. Ronnie White had questioned the fairness of Johnson's trial -- and that was what had made him, in Ashcroft's eyes, "pro-criminal."

Hulshof seemed to relive his glory days before the collegial senators, spreading out his testimony like ornaments on an Ozarks lawn.

"As fate would have it on that night, [the wife of Sheriff Kenny] Jones was leading a group of her church friends in the Christmas program. And if I can try to, Mr. Chairman, paint a visual picture for you, imagine a normal living room, somewhere in America, with a woman seated at the head and women in folding chairs around her living room. With Pam Jones' 8-year-old daughter ... at her knee. Christmas decorations adorned the living room, and on a table next to the window, brightly colored Christmas packages waiting to be exchanged. What you cannot see in that picture, however, just outside that window, [is that] James Johnson lay in wait with a .22-caliber rifle. And from his perch shot five times inside the house, killing, gunning down Pam Jones in cold blood in front of her family."

Hulshof chucked the detail that had troubled White: Johnson's lawyer centered his defense around a false and absurd scenario that was promptly destroyed by a prosecutor simply reading from a police report.

Orrin Hatch beamed over Hulshof's "expert" testimony. And Hulshof argued with the Democrats, debating with Charles Schumer (but not before a cloying "I appreciated the two years that we had to serve together in the United States House") and cramming in the last word on Richard Durbin. We have seen Missouri's political future, and it's the blabby young representative from Columbia.

"The favored witnesses were allowed to ramble on," says Woods. "Our panel was supposed to get questions immediately. Instead, at the insistence of Republicans, [Hulshof and Oklahoma Representative J.C. Watts] were put on with unlimited time to counter what we were saying."

Woods says Ashcroft's testimony was "at the very least incredibly evasive. Ashcroft has not told the truth -- blatantly in a number of areas." She cites his claim that he didn't know about Bob Jones University's widely publicized racist policies before giving a commencement speech there, his disingenuous reasons for opposing Ronnie White, and his insulting argument that the state shouldn't be held liable for desegregation. "That's astonishing for anyone who knows Missouri's history of state-imposed segregated schools and resistance to providing resources to urban schools," she says. "He never would, in the whole long testimony, admit that he had done anything for (any reason) other than valuable and disinterested purposes. For people in Missouri, that's embarrassing."

For Woods, who lost a 1982 Senate race to John Danforth by less than 1 percent, the fact that Ashcroft was elevated "to a hero status" for not contesting his loss to Carnahan is especially ridiculous. "As people in Missouri know, although sympathy turned out a larger number, long before Carnahan's death thousands of moderate Republicans and independents had made it clear they would never vote for Ashcroft again because of his increasingly extreme actions in his attempt to become the religious right's presidential candidate." His concession, she says, was simply "another reflection of his political expediency."

At press time, Ashcroft was certain to be confirmed. That wasn't what Missouri wanted. Missouri wanted to send Jean Carnahan to the Senate and John Ashcroft home to write gospel songs at his own private piano.


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