By Steve Weinstein
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The once ubiquitous U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has been conspicuously absent from the recent spate of terror announcements. Maybe that's because, in the scary times of a close presidential race, he's just a little too scary.
In previous alerts over the years, Ashcroft's hooded eyes and ominous baritone cued America to imagine the worst. His alarmismand a tendency to call press conferences without checking first with the White Housequickly became a political liability to the Bush administration, as critics on both the right and the left balked at the head prosecutor's McCarthyesque zeal. After all, if the voters are afraid, they might not want to risk changebut if they are terrified, they might opt in their panic for someone who represents new hope.
Thus, Department of Homeland Security head Tom Ridge replaced Ashcroft as the official spokesperson of this recent round of orange alerts. (If not visually less intimidating, he is at least more of a Bush team player.) As recently as the last fear fest in May, Ridge had clashed with his counterpart over just how red that scare really wasAshcroft trotted out FBI Director Robert Mueller to warn of Al Qaeda plots against America, but Ridge pointedly refused to crank the DHS color chart from "elevated" to "high."
It is not clear just where Ashcroft has been during the latest announcements, since he, unlike many major officials, does not issue a "public schedule" but invites the media to cover only particular events. When he skipped even the Thursday press conference announcing the arrest of two alleged terrorism supporters in Albanyleaving the public duties to Deputy Attorney General James Comeythe Voice had to ask where he was. Was he on vacation (during the height of campaign season)? Ill again? A Justice Department spokesperson avoided the direct questions and said only, "He has no public events scheduled for today. We'll let you know if he is going to schedule something."
If Ashcroft's recent absence is any indication, don't expect the Republicans to schedule the grim enforcer to lead any sing-alongs at their upcoming convention. For months, anonymous administration members have suggested to the press that a re-elected Bush might seek to replace Ashcroft. But never fear: He has a way of bouncing back.