Published on Saturday, January 20, 2001 in the New York Times
After the Ball Is Over
by Frank Rich
Presidents come and go, but a Washington clichι is forever. Today we'll be lectured repeatedly on the poignancy of a president's exit (not that he's actually going anywhere), the promise of a new president's arrival, and on the glory of our Republic. We'll be reminded that there are no tanks in the streets when America changes leaders only cheesy floats and aural assault weapons in the guise of high school bands.
All true, and yet at this inaugural more than any other in any American's lifetime there is a cognitive dissonance between the patriotic sentiment and the reality. More Americans voted for the candidate who lost the election than the one who won. The Washington Post/ABC News poll says that only 41 percent believe the winner "has a mandate to carry out the agenda" of his campaign. Even before the Florida fracas, the country's black population rejected the Republican candidate (who assiduously tried to attract black voters) by a larger margin than any since Barry Goldwater (who had voted against the Civil Rights Act). And now come calamities ignored in a campaign that dithered about prescription drugs, tax cuts and schools: an energy meltdown in the nation's biggest state, and a possible economic downturn.
George W. Bush seems like an earnest man. When he says he has come to Washington to "change the tone" and "unite, not divide," I don't doubt his sincerity. But so far his actions are those of another entitled boomer who is utterly blind to his own faults. He narcissistically believes things to be so (and his intentions pure) because he says they are.
Change the tone? As Clinton-Gore raised $33 million largely from their corporate masters for their first inaugural, so Bush-Cheney have solicited $35 million from, among others, the securities firms that want to get their hands on your privatized Social Security retirement accounts and the pharmaceutical companies that want to protect the prices of prescription drugs. And already foreign money is making its entrance in the form of a legal but unsavory $100,000 contribution from the deputy prime minister of Lebanon, channeled through his son.
Now comes the news reported by the columnist Robert Novak that John Huang, the convicted Clinton- Gore fund-raiser, repeatedly took the Fifth Amendment in November when questioned in court about his alleged fiscal ties to Republicans, including Senator Mitch McConnell, the No. 1 opponent of the John McCain crusade for campaign finance reform that Mr. Bush has yet to credibly embrace. (Mr. McConnell is also the husband of Mr. Bush's latest labor secretary-designate, Elaine Chao.)
Change the tone? Hard as it is to imagine that anyone could choose an attorney general as polarizing as the last, Mr. Bush has outdone himself. With a single cabinet pick he has reproduced the rancor that attended the full Clinton legal troika of Reno, Hubbell & Foster.
There's been much debate about whether John Ashcroft is a racist a hard case to make against a man whose history of playing the race card to pander to voters is balanced by his record of black judicial appointments. But there has not been nearly enough debate about whether our incipient chief legal officer has lied under oath to the Senate.
Perhaps his seeming fudging and reversals of his previous stands on Roe v. Wade and gun control can be rationalized as clever lawyerese. Perhaps some of his evasions can be dismissed as a politician's typical little white lies and I do mean white such as when he denies he knew that a magazine he favored with an interview, Southern Partisan, espoused the slaveholding views of Southern partisans. But it took a bolder kind of dissembling to contradict his own paper trail in public office. After he swore that the state of Missouri "had been found guilty of no wrong" in a landmark St. Louis desegregation case and that "both as attorney general and as governor" of the state he had followed "all" court orders in the matter, The Washington Post needed only a day to report the truth: A federal district judge in fact ruled that the state was a "primary constitutional wrongdoer" in the matter and threatened to hold Mr. Ashcroft in contempt for his "continual delay and failure to comply" with court orders.
Mr. Ashcroft may have left even more land mines in his testimony about the businessman, philanthropist and former law school official James Hormel, the Clinton ambassador to Luxembourg whose nomination he had fought. Asked by Patrick Leahy, the Judiciary chairman, if he had opposed Mr. Hormel because Mr. Hormel is gay, Mr. Ashcroft answered, "I did not." Then why did he oppose Mr. Hormel? "Well, frankly, I had known Mr. Hormel for a long time. He had recruited me, when I was a student in college, to go to the University of Chicago Law School," Mr. Ashcroft testified, before adding a cryptic answer he would repeat two times as Mr. Leahy pressed him: "I made a judgment that it would be ill advised to make him ambassador based on the totality of the record."
The implication of this creepy testimony is that Mr. Ashcroft, having known the 68-year-old Mr. Hormel for decades, had some goods on him. The use of the word "recruit" by Mr. Ashcroft also had a loaded connotation in context, since it's common for those on the religious right who argue (as Mr. Ashcroft does) that sexual orientation is a choice to accuse homosexuals of "recruiting" the young.
No senator followed up Mr. Ashcroft's testimony about Mr. Hormel, who, unlike another subject of an Ashcroft character assassination, Judge Ronnie White, was not invited to testify at the hearings. I located Mr. Hormel by phone in Washington, where he had traveled for final meetings at the State Department after concluding his service in Luxembourg. He strongly disputed Mr. Ashcroft's version of events.
"I don't recall ever recruiting anybody for the University of Chicago," Mr. Hormel said in our conversation Wednesday night. As an assistant dean involved with admissions, he says, he might have met Mr. Ashcroft in passing while touring campuses to give talks to prospective law school applicants, or in later office visits about grades or curriculum. But, Mr. Hormel quickly adds, he doesn't recall "a single conversation with John Ashcroft." Nor has Mr. Hormel seen him in the three decades since; Mr. Ashcroft didn't have the courtesy to respond to repeated requests for a meeting during Mr. Hormel's own confirmation process and didn't bother to attend Mr. Hormel's hearing before opposing him.
"I think he made insinuations which would lead people to have a complete misunderstanding of my very limited relationship with him," Mr. Hormel says. "I fear that there was an inference he created that he knew me and based on that knowledge he came to the conclusion I wasn't fit to become an ambassador. I find that very disturbing. He kept repeating the phrase `the totality of the record.' I don't know what record he's talking about. I don't know of anything I've ever done that's been called unethical." The record that Mr. Ashcroft so casually smeared includes an appointment to the U.N. in 1996 that was confirmed by the Foreign Relations Committee on which Mr. Ashcroft then sat.
Since Mr. Bush could easily have avoided the divisiveness of the Ashcroft choice by picking an equally conservative attorney general with less baggage, some of his opponents will start calling him "stupid" again. That seems unfair. Mr. Bush's real problem is arrogance he thinks we are stupid. He thinks that if he vouches incessantly for the "good heart" of a John Ashcroft, that settles it. It hasn't; polls showed an even split on the nomination well before the hearings. He thinks that if he fills the stage with black faces at a white convention and poses incessantly with black schoolkids and talks about being the "inclusive" president "of everybody," he'll persuade minority voters he's compassionate. He hasn't.
George W. Bush likes to boast that he doesn't watch TV. He didn't even tune in as the nation's highest court debated his fate, leaving his princely retainers to bring him bulletins. Maybe it's time for him to start listening; he might even learn why so many Americans aren't taking his word for John Ashcroft's "heart." I don't doubt that our new president will give a poetic Inaugural Address today, but if he remains out of touch with the country, he will not be able to govern tomorrow.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company