John Ashcroft: Man of the Year

John Ashcroft, the 79th attorney general of the United States, is HUMAN EVENTS "Man of the Year" for 2002. No finer choice could have been made-for his role in the war on terror; for his adherence to the principles of liberty that animated our founding; and for his dignified stature in the face of unjustified criticism, John Ashcroft deserves this award.

Atty. Gen. Ashcroft’s personal background is that of a man whose roots are in the Midwest-both physically and spiritually. He was born 60 years ago in Chicago, Ill., and raised in Springfield, Mo., where he attended public school. In his only detour from Middle America, he graduated with honors from Yale University where he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1964.

Returning to the Midwest, Ashcroft received his J.D. from the University of Chicago in 1967. After teaching law for several years, he began his career of public service in 1973 as Missouri auditor and was later elected to two terms as the state’s attorney general. In 1984 he was elected governor of Missouri-a post he held until 1993.

Demonstrating both his sound sense of fiscal responsibility and his priority on the measures that would benefit all Missourians, he was, during his tenure, rated by Fortune magazine one of the top ten education governors in the country, while Financial World and City and State magazines credited him with making Missouri one of the financially best-managed states in the country. He also spearheaded the state’s efforts to reduce the use of illegal drugs.

In 1994 Ashcroft was elected to the Senate, where he focused on combating illegal drugs, increasing the quality of public education, reducing crime and safeguarding the rights of crime victims. Ashcroft worked closely with Missouri law enforcement officers, developing strategies to counter the state’s methamphetamine problems. He fought to toughen the penalties for gun crimes by substantially increasing mandatory minimum prison sentences for the criminal misuse of firearms.

During his time in the Senate, Ashcroft was a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and chairman of the Constitution Subcommittee.

When nominating John Ashcroft to serve as attorney general, President Bush characterized him as a "a man of great integrity, a man of great judgment and a man who knows the law." Since his confirmation, John Ashcroft has demonstrated the President’s perceptiveness.

Most notably, John Ashcroft has led the way in the fight against domestic terrorism. After September 11, the Department of Justice, under his guidance, has responded to the challenges posed by international terror with vigor and a renewed determination to safeguard the lives of every American.

The transition has been difficult-as it has been for all Americans. Prior to September 11, the Department of Justice and the FBI were oriented towards law enforcement and the prosecution of criminals. Beginning that day and continuing to the present, the department and the FBI have taken up a new mission-to use the tools of law to identify, disrupt and dismantle the terrorist threat before the next attack.

He has torn down barriers that unwisely prevented our law enforcement agencies from sharing information about potential terrorist threats. He has eliminated self-imposed restrictions that made it more difficult for FBI agents to gather public information than it was for any member of the general public. He has spearheaded the updating of laws first passed when rotary telephones were in use to respond to the advent of cell phones and the Internet. And, most importantly, he has restored a culture of cooperation and coordination among our nation’s law enforcement agencies.

Though we can, unfortunately, never be sure we are safe from terror, we can be confident that the Department of Justice, with John Ashcroft at the helm, is doing everything possible to prevent further tragedies on our shores.

And, in fighting terror, Atty. Gen. Ashcroft has shown a sensitivity and understanding of the fundamental principles of liberty that undergird American freedom. He has approached the awesome powers of his office with humility and a clear understanding of the limited role that government plays in American society.

As he has said: "We’re going to protect and honor the Constitution, and I don’t have the authority to set it aside. If I had the authority to set it aside, this would be a dangerous government, and I wouldn’t respect it. We’ll not be driven to abandon our freedoms by those who would seek to destroy them." In short, in the war on terror, John Ashcroft has been and is the right man for the job.

But his tenure as attorney general this past year has not been exclusively focused on the war against terror. John Ashcroft and the department he heads have also taken vital steps in returning to the Executive Branch a respect for the rule of law and an understanding of the concept of separation of powers that is the foundation of ordered liberty in America.

For the first proposition, one need only consider John Ashcroft’s contribution to President Bush’s selection of judicial nominees. President Bush, with Ashcroft’s able advice, has nominated judges who understand, in Alexander Hamilton’s famous words, that "[t]he courts must declare the sense of the law; and if they should be disposed to exercise will instead of judgment, the consequences would be the substitution of their pleasure for that of the legislative body."

This return to a conception of the judicial role that is limited and self-restrained is amongst the most signal achievements of the Ashcroft Department of Justice. Indeed, were it John Ashcroft’s sole accomplishment in the past year this change in the character of judicial nominees would be sufficient to warrant his receipt of the "Man of the Year" award.

But, of course, that is not the only important initiative to arise from John Ashcroft’s leadership. In my view, one of the most significant achievements to which Atty. Gen. Ashcroft can lay claim is the revival of an appropriate understanding of the balance between the executive and legislative branches. In the most recent administration we had seen a profligate effort to exercise Executive Branch authority to prevent scrutiny of Executive Branch misconduct. Those efforts were justly and appropriately rejected.

But they left the executive authority severely wounded. Precedents were established that might have inappropriately shifted the balance of power, restricting executive authority. Under John Ashcroft, the Bush Administration has begun a careful, and thus far successful, campaign to rein in overzealous legislative excess. Relying, for example, on fundamental executive authority to seek the opinions of the Cabinet and make recommendations for laws to Congress, the Ashcroft Department has successfully resisted efforts from individual congressmen to pry into executive policy deliberations. If John Ashcroft succeeds in restoring the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches, he will truly have achieved a result of historical importance-one of great significance to our nation and (no doubt) great consternation to those who would emasculate the executive.

And that brings me to the last reason John Ashcroft deserves this award: the consternation he has caused so many and the serenity and moral fiber with which he has faced that consternation. Despite his eminent good sense and excellent management of the legal war on terror, some have sought to vilify John Ashcroft in the press. Less than six weeks after September 11th, reporters were already accusing him of "trampling the Bill of Rights." CBS has called him the "Minister of Fear." The Los Angeles Times had charged that he proposes to re-establish internment camps in the United States. All of these were grotesque mischaracterizations of a man of honor and integrity.

But even here, Ashcroft’s reaction demonstrates the appropriateness of his choice as Man of the Year. Some in the arena of public discourse would react with anger or disdain. By uplifting contrast, John Ashcroft has suffered the slings and arrows of attack with humility and grace. He has worn the overwrought opposition of groups such as the People for the American Way and Alliance for Justice as a quiet badge of honor and shown no shame in their condemnation. So, even in his dignified response to outrageous attacks, he has exemplified the character and nature that make him an appropriate honoree.

In short, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft is a man of principle, committed to confronting injustice by leading a professional Justice Department free from politics, defined by integrity and dedicated to upholding the rule of law. He has ensured that the Justice Department fulfills its promise and honors its heritage-not only by enforcing the rule of law, but by guaranteeing rights for the advancement of all Americans. For this, he is truly deserving of HUMAN EVENTS’ recognition as "Man of the Year.”