The Senate Judiciary Committee, very temporarily led by the Democrats, greeted John Ashcroft in its hearing room with one question on its mind: Would John Ashcroft come down with a bad case of pre-confirmation career poisoning?
In today's quick and dirty media politics, Ashcroft may be well-known in Washington, but not around the country, so leftists hoped that creating a very unfavorable first impression might be enough to sink him. A confirmation process is not a jury trial, but if it were, the Ashcroft hearings would have to be relocated due to vicious pre-trial publicity. The leftist groups have tried to turn Ashcroft into a bizarre caricature, a snake-handling David Duke. The "objective" news media have observed this festival of inaccuracy and hyperbole - and decided to pass it on wholesale, no questions asked.
Take Tom Brokaw, who pressed the President-elect around in a "Dateline" interview: "Already people are saying: Look, your nomination of John Ashcroft as the Attorney General is a divisive gesture within the African-American community. Here's a man who enthusiastically embraced an honorary degree from a university with racist policies, Bob Jones. And a man who said he's got to speak out on behalf of the agenda of Robert E. Lee."
What "people" are saying these things, and who is implying that Ashcroft wishes the South hadn't lost the Civil War? The only people whose opinion Tom Brokaw thinks are important are those he won't identify.
Newsweek magazine is poisoning the well of the new administration with a new poll showing that by 41 to 37 percent, Americans opposed John Ashcroft's nomination - before Ashcroft had any chance to testify before the Senate, and before he granted any interview to a reporter. Can imagine Newsweek treating Al Gore's Cabinet picks that way?
From the very first day Ashcroft's appointment was announced, he was portrayed as outside the mainstream. On NBC, Brian Williams claimed he would "calm the far right politically." But Clinton's most liberal Cabinet picks were never trashed as extremists.
On December 11, 1992, Clinton nominated, among others, Robert Reich as Labor Secretary and Donna Shalala as Secretary of Health and Human Services. Reich not only wrote a book called "The Resurgent Liberal," but also the book "Tales of a New America: The Anxious Liberal's Guide to the Future," with the back cover resounding with a rave from Commonweal magazine: "Robert Reich's agenda remains...a vigorous and welcome redefinition of modern liberalism." This may have embarrassed some reporters into daintily applying the "L" word. CBS's Susan Spencer saying the "liberal" Reich was "no favorite of business. He's a strong backer of job training and education programs." On ABC, Peter Jennings introduced a positive profile of Reich by noting some of Reich's theories were "quite liberal." On CNN, Wolf Blitzer only said he was "a strong advocate of using federal funds to stimulate the economy and promote the nation's infrastructure, even at the expense of some short-term increase in the deficit."
Reich was confirmed without a single Republican protest vote.
Donna Shalala had decades of experience as an activist on the radical left, but none of the networks labeled her at all when she was introduced. Wolf Blitzer didn't even call her liberal, except to say she "has worked closely with Hillary Clinton over the years on several issues." Blitzer couldn't bring himself to say the two women served on the board of the ultraliberal Children's Defense Fund, the group that gives Ted Kennedy a "100" on his social program voting.
ABC's Rebecca Chase was equally value-neutral. She pointed out Shalala had "little experience" in either health care or welfare, but explained "the President-elect pointed to her volunteer work with a Washington-based child advocacy group as qualification enough." Clinton told viewers Shalala's time on the CDF board was "prima facie evidence of involvement with social welfare." Her far-left activities were portrayed by the press as adding to her fitness for office, not detracting.
Only two Republican Senators voted no on Shalala.
Then in March, Clinton nominated Janet Reno for Attorney General. Despite the intense support of leftists like CDF's Marian Wright Edelman and NOW's Patricia Ireland, she sailed through a confirmation hearing with reporters noting how Republicans "gushed admiration for Reno."
She was approved 98-0.
No one in the media even whispered if any of these picks might be "too liberal" or "too extreme" for high office. Those questions are never to be asked, period. But come a Republican nominee with the slightest whiff of a conservative odor about him and everyone in town turns into Torquemada.
Now, what was that they were saying about bipartisanship?