Clear and Present Danger

Democrats Have the Goods to Sink John Ashcroft's Nomination. Now the Question Is Whether They Have the Guts.

When Ashcroft comes up for his own vote before his former Senate colleagues, he will most likely face his strongest opposition from Democrats over his bouncing of black judge Ronnie White, a member of the Missouri Supreme Court nominated by Clinton for a federal assignment. At the time Ashcroft was up for reelection, running on a "tough on crime" platform. During the early stages of the debate on White, Ashcroft evidenced little more than routine interest, asking questions about partial-birth abortion and gay rights. But as his own reelection campaign against Mel Carnahan heated up, Ashcroft zeroed in on White. The senator seized on White's lone and reluctant dissent from the execution of a cop killer, who shot three officers and a sheriff's wife. White wrote that even though the jury rejected the killer's claim of insanity, there must have been something wrong with the man.

Ashcroft argued that the law enforcement community had raised a "red flag" about White. But as it turns out, Ashcroft's fulminating was based on what looks like a malevolent distortion of the judge's views. As an inquiry by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch revealed, one of the largest police organizations in the state supported White, while the others had been actively lobbied by Ashcroft or his allies.

Ashcroft's "marathon public crucifixion" of White caused African American Gentry Trotter, an Ashcroft fundraiser, to resign from the senator's campaign, and so galvanized black voters in Missouri that they voted for Carnahan, even in death.

The whole grisly scene may soon be played out again, with Democrats threatening to call White for testimony, just as Anita Hill was called to testify against the nomination of Clarence Thomas. Only this time, liberals may have a real chance. Conservatives may just have gone too far.

Additional reporting: Rouven Gueissaz

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