U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft (born 1942) was one of the most powerful members of President George W. Bush's cabinet. Ashcroft served as a state attorney general, Missouri governor, and U.S. senator prior to becoming U.S. attorney general. His conservative social views made him a controversial figure in the Bush administration.
Ashcroft's paternal grandfather emigrated to the United States from Northern Ireland at the beginning of the twentieth century. Shortly after arriving, he was severely burned in a gasoline explosion and almost died. He thereafter dedicated his life to full-time Christian evangelism. Eventually he joined the Assembly of God Church.
Robert Ashcroft followed his father into the ministry. On May 9, 1942, while Robert and his wife, Grace, were living in Chicago, their son John was born. The Ashcrofts later moved to Springfield, Missouri, to be closer to the headquarters of the Assembly of God.
Robert Ashcroft served as president of three colleges affiliated with the Assembly of God. According to an article that appeared in the New Yorker in 2002, he began each day with a prayer that included the words, "Keep us from accident, injury, and illness. But most of all keep us from evil." As attorney general, Ashcroft would continue his father's practice of morning group prayer.
As a student at Hillcrest High School in Springfield, Ashcroft was president of his class. He also played basketball and was captain and quarterback of the football team, and he earned a football scholarship to Yale University. At Yale, a knee injury kept him out of intercollegiate football, though he did well in intramural sports. Following his graduation with honors from Yale in 1964, Ashcroft attended the University of Chicago Law School on a scholarship.
While at the University of Chicago, Ashcroft met his future wife, Janet Roede, another law student. They were married in 1967. After graduating from law school, Ashcroft took his wife back to Springfield, where he opened a law practice. He also began teaching at Southwest Missouri State University.
Political Head Start
While still an undergraduate, Ashcroft had worked as a summer intern for his congressman. When the congressman declined to seek re-election in 1972, Ashcroft ran as a replacement candidate in the Republican Party primary, but lost the bid for the nomination with nearly 45 percent of the vote. Soon after, the 30-year-old Ashcroft was asked to fill an unexpired term as state auditor. However, Ashcroft failed to win election to the office two years later.
Missouri's attorney general John Danforth then hired Ashcroft as a legal assistant. (One of the other junior lawyers in Danforth's office was future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.) In 1976, when Danforth ran for the United States Senate, Ashcroft was elected to replace him as attorney general.
As Missouri's attorney general, Ashcroft made a single appearance before the United States Supreme Court, arguing a set of state statutes, including one that required all second-trimester abortions to be performed in a hospital. Ashcroft won re-election as attorney general in 1980, and he was selected chairman of the non-partisan National Association of Attorneys General.
Governor of Missouri
In 1984, Ashcroft ran successfully for governor of Missouri. As governor, he balanced eight consecutive state budgets. He also served as chairman of the Education Commission of the States. Fortune magazine named him one of the top ten education governors, and he made Missouri one of the best managed states financially. In 1991, he was elected chairman of the non-partisan National Governors Association.
But as Missouri's governor, Ashcroft also drew attention for opposing abortion rights and school desegregation. He attempted to appoint a task force to tighten Missouri's restrictive abortion law after the Supreme Court upheld the state's law in 1989. And a year later, he proposed limiting the number of abortions a woman could have to one.
Term limits prevented Ashcroft from seeking reelection in 1992, so in 1993 he ran for chairman of the Republican National Committee. But after meeting opposition from pro-choice Missouri Republicans, he abandoned the race. When Senator Danforth announced that he would not seek re-election in 1994, Ashcroft successfully ran for the open seat.
During his single six-year term in the Senate, Ashcroft served on the Senate Judiciary Committee and as chairman of the Constitution Committee. He sponsored seven proposed constitutional amendments, none of which won Congressional approval. The amendments would have banned abortions, prohibited burning the American flag, allowed line-item vetoes, required a balanced federal budget, required a super-majority vote in Congress for tax increases, established term limits for federal office holders, and made it easier to pass a constitutional amendment.
Ashcroft also attempted to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts for funding projects he considered indecent. He also blasted "activist" judges and opposed the appointment of David Satcher as Surgeon General because Satcher had a record of supporting abortion rights. A member of the National Rifle Association, Ashcroft also opposed nearly all gun control legislation. During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Ashcroft was the first senator to call on President Clinton to resign if the allegations of misconduct proved true. Ashcroft's voting record in the Senate won him 100 percent approval ratings from the American Conservative Union and the Christian Coalition, and zero ratings from the Americans for Democratic Action, the League of Conservation Voters, and the National Organization for Women.
Ashcroft toyed with the idea of seeking the 2000 Republican presidential nomination, but instead focused on re-election to the Senate. Ashcroft's opponent Mel Carnahan died in a plane crash three weeks before the 2000 election. State officials decided it was too late to reprint the ballots, so Ashcroft officially ran against a dead man. After Carnahan posthumously won the election, his widow agreed to accept the Senate appointment. Ashcroft did not challenge that arrangement, even though his defeat seemed to place him on the threshold of political oblivion.
President-elect George W. Bush resurrected Ashcroft's career on December 22, 2000, when he nominated Ashcroft to be U.S. attorney general. Ashcroft's nomination ran into major opposition in the Senate over his conservative religious and political beliefs, including his opposition to abortion. Ashcroft was confirmed, but the 42 votes against him in the Senate was the largest number ever cast against an attorney general's confirmation. Following the contentious confirmation, Ashcroft vowed to renew the war on drugs, reduce violence due to firearms, and combat discrimination.
In the war on terrorism that followed the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, Ashcroft was accused of creating an atmosphere in which any opposition to his policies was seen as unpatriotic, if not subversive. Under policies put in place by the Bush administration, suspected terrorists were to be held on the slightest of charges to keep them off the streets. In the past, even organized crime figures or suspected spies had been granted their liberties until they actually committed crimes.
Ashcroft, along with Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld, emerged as one of the most powerful members of Bush's cabinet. Ashcroft became the administration's persona for the war on terrorism and took a number of controversial steps in its pursuit—including detaining over 1,000 people on charges not made public, deciding to monitor selected attorney-client conversations, and setting in place plans to try alleged war criminals in military tribunals.
Ashcroft continued to pursue his faith-based agenda as attorney general, even though he stated that he did not believe religious doctrine can or should be imposed. When he took over as attorney general in 2001, Ashcroft introduced prayer sessions in which up to 30 participants studied Bible passages and prayed. Ashcroft's sessions drew criticism for posing a conflict between church and state, until meetings with President Bush in the wake of the terrorist attacks pre-empted the prayer meetings.
In 2002, Ashcroft told Jeffrey Toobin of the New Yorker, "[T]here are standards that are moral and spiritual and eternal that I want to live up to. And people who win the battle write the history, and they may or may not get it right. I want to do what's right in God's sight."
Not surprisingly, Ashcroft's presumption that he would be able to interpret God's wishes for others drew criticism. He caused a stir when he had curtains erected around two twelve-foot art deco statues in the Justice building, one of which portrayed a partially unclad figure, prompting charges of prudishness and intolerance from his critics. And he gave no sign that he was prepared to compromise on his views about abortion—his Justice Department asked a federal appeals court to uphold a law banning "partial birth" abortions.
Ashcroft established a well-deserved reputation for turning defeat into victory. He told Toobin: "When I lost the race for Congress, I became state auditor. When I lost the race for state auditor, I became attorney general. When I lost the race for national committee chairman, I became a United States senator. When I lost the race for senator, I became the Attorney General."
By April 2002, Ashcroft enjoyed a 76 percent approval rating, according to a Gallup poll. Although Ashcroft stated that he had retired from electoral politics, some analysts saw him as a successor to Vice-President Dick Cheney should Cheney's health become a problem before the 2004 election.
Ashcroft was the author of Lessons from a Father to His Son. He was the co-author with his wife Janet (who taught law at Howard University) of two college law textbooks. The Ashcrofts have three children, a daughter and two sons, and one grandchild. Ashcroft enjoyed spending holidays on his 150-acre farm on the outskirts of his hometown of Springfield.
Ashcroft also enjoyed playing the piano. In 2003, he told The American Enterprise, "I play the piano almost everyday, because it's a way to express ideas and to experiment. I also play the guitar a little bit, and the mandolin a little bit. Music, as I see it, is the study of relationships— tonal relationships—and in all of life, nothing is more important than relationships." Ashcroft is also an accomplished baritone; in the Senate, he was known as one of the Singing Senators, along with Trent Lott, Jim Jeffords, and Larry Craig.
Not without a sense of humor, Ashcroft told Toobin in the New Yorker, "There are only two things necessary in life—WD-40 and duct tape… . WD-40 for things that don't move that should, and duct tape for things that do move but shouldn't."
American Enterprise, January-February 2003.
New Yorker, April 15, 2002.
Time, May 28, 2001.
"Attorney General John Ashcroft," United States Department of Justice, http://www.usdoj.gov/ag/ashcroftbio.html (January 2003).
"Profile: John Ashcroft," BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/1120440.stm (January 2003).