Cover Story

Sackcloth & Ashcroft

t's only 1997 and already Sen. John Ashcroft is making his move to become the candidate of the Christian right. A member of a Republican Congress that is otherwise putting the rank-and-file GOP to sleep, he's managed to identify with the only excitement on Capitol Hill: battling to shut down the National Endowment for the Arts; switching his position and backing Jesse Helms in his ideological fight with liberal GOPer William Weld; stopping abortion-providing HMOs in the Medicaid system; and standing out as one of the lone Senate voices against the president's national education testing plan. Is he starting too early? In a party where activists are still shivering from the Bob Dole nightmare, Sen. Ashcroft is hoping to become the presidential candidate of their dreams.

Issue: "Ashcroft 2000?," Oct. 11, 1997

Ten small American flags hang above the mantle in John Ashcroft's Senate office. Each one is framed, with a young pupil's black-and-white photo superimposed on the field of 48 stars. In the white stripes, childish handwriting spells out homey definitions of virtues such as reliability, honesty, and self-control.

The senator is obviously proud of his flag collection. He shows it off to visitors and has had the series reproduced as a collection of oversized postcards that he distributes from his office. Many Washington sophisticates would regard the penmanship lessons, distributed in the 1930s by the National Institution for Moral Instruction, as hopelessly hokey and old-fashioned. Not Sen. Ashcroft. He considers them "a reminder of the values that have been the foundation and strength of our nation."

Washington sophisticates would regard that assessment as even hokier than the flags themselves, but Sen. Ashcroft doesn't much mind. One of his favorite flags, after all, offers a practical definition of "self-reliance": "I will learn to think for myself. I will not be afraid of being laughed at."

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The junior senator from Missouri has been doing a lot of thinking for himself lately. Mostly, he's been thinking about the White House-specifically, the fact that he'd like to move in. Though the very idea would elicit laughter from many political analysts, the self-reliant senator keeps thinking about it.

But Mr. Ashcroft is no Don Quixote. He realizes that even a billionaire businessman like Ross Perot isn't self-reliant enough to get into the White House without a lot of help, both political and financial. So, just a few months after the last election-when most voters were reveling in a reprieve from yard signs and bumper stickers-John Ashcroft started talking to his friends, feeling them out on a presidential bid, gauging their enthusiasm.

The circle of friends that he turned to for advice reveals a lot about the little-known senator. His fan club is said to include such religious-right icons as Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed, and Mike Farris. Columnist George Will dubbed him the "pinup candidate" of the Christian Coalition, a group that anointed him with the coveted keynote speech at its national convention last month.

Not bad for a politician who barely registers on the wider political consciousness. The problem, of course, is that an anointing by a handful of Christian leaders doesn't carry the same weight as an anointing by, say, Samuel. His anointee may have seemed an unlikely national leader, but King David had the advantage of not having to face a democratic election. Sen. Ashcroft, by contrast, has to sell himself to several million voters who tend to "look on the outward appearance" rather than the content of a candidate's character, as evidenced by the double election of Bill Clinton.

But Mr. Ashcroft plainly is betting that by the end of the "Slick Willie" era, voters will be ready for a candidate whose life is an open book and whose views don't shift with the political winds. He's already trying to define himself as a kind of anti-Clinton, excoriating the president for his alleged marital unfaithfulness and for admitting that he would inhale if he had it all to do over again. "That is not the kind of leadership most parents want their children to see," he says, exhibiting a restraint that will no doubt weaken as the election nears.

By contrast, Mr. Ashcroft insists that he has no skeletons in his closet, and that he could withstand intense media scrutiny "on these and other issues." His friends agree.

Carl Herbster, a Baptist pastor and president of the Kansas City-based American Association of Christian Schools, got to know Mr. Ashcroft during his two terms as governor of Missouri. He says he was skeptical at first, having been burned by politicians who offered lip service to Christian values, then betrayed those values once in office. Even after sitting in on one of the 7:45 a.m. Bible studies that supposedly started each day in the governor's office, Mr. Herbster wasn't convinced. "There was many a time when I just dropped in on him to see if this was for real, or whether he was just staging it for my benefit," Mr. Herbster recalls. Throughout eight years of visits, he never caught the governor going to work without first going to prayer.

"I look at him as a man of character who has a consistent walk with God," Mr. Herbster says of the senator, whom he describes as a non-charismatic Pentecostal. So when Mr. Ashcroft called him early in the summer to ask what he thought of a presidential bid, "I responded very positively. I took him to Esther and said 'for such a time as this' we need John Ashcroft."

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