Jewish World Review July 9, 2001 / 18 Tamuz, 5761

Jules Witcover

Jules Witcover
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Consumer Reports

Listening to, and watching, Ashcroft -- THAT great political philosopher of the Nixon years, John Mitchell, once passed on sage advice to observers of the sainted administration for which he served as attorney general - until, that is, he was sent to the slammer for his key role in the Watergate cover-up. "Watch what we do," he intoned, "not what we say."

Thanks to the acceptance of that advice by Washington Post junior sleuths Woodward and Bernstein and the tenacity of congressional bloodhounds, Mitchell was not the only casualty of the assorted Watergate crimes. Richard Nixon's own proclamation that "I am not a crook" couldn't withstand investigation and he also bit the dust, though outside prison walls.

Mitchell's wise advice comes to mind under much less lethal circumstances in the actions of the latest attorney general, John Ashcroft, in regard to a couple of positions dear to the hearts of his good friends at the National Rifle Association.

First, in a letter to the NRA convention, he reiterated his belief that the Second Amendment provides an individual as opposed to a collective constitutional right to bear arms. This statement was significant in that a pivotal Second Amendment case in Texas now on appeal has Ashcroft's Justice Department supposedly arguing against the view he expressed. The NRA letter prompted the Brady Center to Prevent Handgun Violence and Common Cause to file an ethics complaint against Ashcroft with Justice's inspector general.

Second, he announced the other day that an existing 90-day period for preserving records of persons seeking to buy handguns would be slashed to a single day. Gun control proponents were outraged, but they hardly were surprised, knowing the depth of commitment Ashcroft had against gun control before his confirmation.

Yet they had received his assurances during the confirmation process that he would stop being an NRA toady once he took over as head of the department. When he was pressed on his pro-NRA views before the Senate Judiciary Committee last winter, the former Missouri senator who had spent a career as one of Charlton Heston's strongest allies in defending the right to bear arms, and also as St. George trying to slay the abortion dragon, Ashcroft rolled over like a puppy wanting his tummy scratched.

In leaving the Senate (with a push from the voters of Missouri), he assured the quizzing senators that he knew in his new job he would be moving from an "enactment-oriented role" to a "law-oriented" role. That meant, he patiently explained, he would stop trying to change laws and just enforce them as written. Incredulous Democrats on the confirmation committee rolled their eyes upward but swallowed hard and, with a bare Republican Senate majority at the time, decided not to filibuster against him.

The main reason one Democrat on the Judiciary committee, Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, said he sided with the Republicans was that he wanted to extend "an olive branch" to the new president. Another Democratic senator, Chris Dodd of Connecticut, said he would vote for Ashcroft to give him "a second chance" to show he could be even-handed as attorney general.

All this was in the first days of the new Bush presidency, amid all the talk about "changing the tone" in Washington and bringing cooperation and civility to this terrible town, in place of the old confrontation and cynicism. But a certain reality seems to be settling in here, and not only as regards Ashcroft.

Congressional Democrats say they see little of the reaching out in compromise that Bush as presidential candidate said would be his byword if elected. Exhibit A offered is usually Bush's actions as opposed to his words on protecting the environment.

His uncompromising determination to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge got nowhere, and only the recent embarrassing spectacle of his own brother, Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, opposing Bush-backed plans to drill off the Sunshine State apparently turned around that particular initiative sought by the oil interests. The drilling now is to take place off Alabama, not Florida. Great news for the good folks in Mobile.

"Watch what we do, not what we say" remains as useful a motto today as it was when that old straight-arrow John Mitchell first uttered it - with forked tongue.

Comment on JWR contributor Jules Witcover's column by clicking here.

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© 2001, TMS