The most telling snippet of White House spin on John Ashcroft came at the end of of Sunday’s WaPo article on his “complex tenure:”
“They resented some of his showboating,” said a former White House aide who did not want to be identified to avoid offending Ashcroft. “Almost alone among the Cabinet secretaries, he was seen as a self-promoter and grandstander.”
There you have it in a wonderful little package – the White House view of those meddling little things known as federal agencies and those annoying little people called Cabinet secretaries.
The White House wanted to run the entire government itself. It loathed independence just as surely as it loathed internal debate – it didn’t want to be forced to think or contemplate or consider different options. It simply wanted people in the federal agencies who excelled as being yes-men or yes-women. Why? Because the White House knew that it knew the right way to run the government and no one else did.
Case in point – education. In the first few years of the administration there was a Secretary of Education named Rod Paige. He was a good, decent man who thought he was coming in to run education policy. Not so fast Secretary Paige. The real Secretary of Education had a corner office on the second floor of the West Wing. Her name was Margaret LaMontagne (later Margaret Spellings). She made the policy.
Any Cabinet secretary with any independent thought was considered – as the unnamed White House source described Ashcroft – a “self-promoter” or a “grandstander.” Remember Paul O’Neill? Christine Todd Whitman? They dared rock the boat. They dared to try and push policy and have their own opinions. They were shown the door.
John Ashcroft, we now discover, fought back. This is actually something I have known for years. I once worked for him and have dear friends who were with him at DoJ. They hinted at the stories now being made public – and many others not yet public but of a similar theme. I say hinted because Ashcroft expected silence when it came to complaints. He knew he was the scapegoat. He knew the White House press shop went on background to screw him, he knew they loathed his independent views. He was quiet. Why? Because it is part of his faith – to be silent in the face of your accusers. It is what he felt he needed to do.
John made plenty of mistakes, misspoke more than a few times. He was a very, very conservative attorney general. His policies weren’t policies that some were ever going to adopt or appreciate. But he was never the monster that people portrayed him to be. And he never got the least bit of credit for thanks rom the White House. President Bush never defended John Ashcroft during the four years of his tenure like he defended Al Gonzales yesterday. What a waste. Al Gonzales doesn’t deserve to be defended for his actions and his lack of a core – John Ashcroft actually did.