As John Ashcroft's confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee got underway on Jan. 16, George W. Bush's choice for attorney general faced a level of Democratic hostility not seen since the Clarence Thomas hearings a decade ago-but the questioning inside was sedate compared to the street theater outside.
Outside, pro-abortion feminists were weighing in. At a Tuesday rally organized by the National Organization for Women, 50 or so picketers marched in a circle outside the Hart Senate Office Building. "Not the church, not the state, women must decide our fate!" they chanted, followed by cries of "Anti-woman, anti-gay, right-wing bigots go away."
Outside also, leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People were vowing to make the Ashcroft nomination a virtual litmus test on civil-rights orthodoxy. NAACP president Kweisi Mfume said his organization would "fund major information campaigns for the next four years" against senators who failed to toe the line. "Senators who vote for Ashcroft will not be able to run away from this and assume people will forget," he warned. "For Democratic senators, in particular, this vote comes as close to a litmus test as one can get on the issue of civil rights and equal justice under the law from the party's most loyal constituency."
Conservative grassroots organizations also swung into action. Despite the saber-rattling of NOW and the NAACP, the vast majority of women and blacks at Capitol Hill demonstrations were there to support, rather than oppose, the Ashcroft nomination. A crowd of perhaps 300-mostly female-protesters gathered outside the Capitol on a bright, cold Tuesday morning at a Citizens for Ashcroft rally. Organizers handed out buttons reading "Pro women, pro Ashcroft," along with red-white-and-black lapel ribbons in the shape of an "A."
Nearby, a crowd of perhaps 100-mostly black-protesters watched and cheered. They were members of Victory Fellowship, Teen Challenge, and other faith-based groups supportive of Mr. Ashcroft's Charitable Choice provision within the 1996 welfare reform act, which allows religious organizations that provide welfare-related social services to receive government aid.
Meanwhile, in the Ashcroft "war room," set up in the offices of the Senate Republican Conference, organizers struggled to carry out their battle plan. Conservative groups brought in press releases for a "lit-drop team" that would deliver reams of information to every Senate office. "Sign teams" labored over placards while "runner teams" received their instructions for ferrying information between the hearing room and the war room.
A cell phone rang somewhere, followed by an announcement: "Ashcroft's office wants a crowd to greet him when he arrives at the hearing. Get on the phone and let your people know." Within seconds, phones all over the Hill were ringing with the instructions to get warm bodies out to the corner of Delaware and Constitution Avenues. Moments later, another call: The nominee would be arriving at the corner of Delaware and C, not Constitution. Again the phone tree lit up.
Thirty minutes later, on Delaware Avenue, organizers were hedging their bets. More than 100 onlookers lined almost the entire block from Constitution to C Street. Promptly at 1 p.m., Mr. Ashcroft arrived-at Constitution, as originally planned. The crowd surged up the street to meet him. "God bless you, Senator!" "Good luck, Senator!" they shouted, reaching for his outstretched hand as cameras followed his every move.
Mr. Ashcroft seemed buoyed by the reception, but there was no time for organizers to enjoy the moment. "I need 10 teams of 10," a leader called out before the crowd could dissipate. "We've got 10 senators who need to see us. I want these Democratic senators to trip over you on the way to the hearing." As volunteers lined up for their assignments, the organizer warned that they'd be required to remove their pro-Ashcroft buttons before entering the Senate office buildings. "Put them back on after a discreet distance," she urged as she passed out lime green stickers that read, "Stop the hate talk-confirm John Ashcroft." "Remember: friendly, smiles, stickers. Now hurry!"
If the adrenaline level was unmistakable, something else pulsed just beneath the surface: a worry about whether TeamBush sufficiently values conservative grassroots activity.
"There's virtually no coordination with the Bush people," grumbled Tom Jipping, a judicial expert at the Free Congress Foundation. "Maybe they think the grassroots groups will be a problem, I don't know. We can't even get them to return our calls.... They want to win the nomination, and if they have the votes to do it, they're satisfied. There's no view toward weakening opposition or positioning future nominees for confirmation."
Carl Herbster, president of the American Association of Christian Schools, disagreed with that view of TeamBush: He said he was "amazed and thrilled at how interested they are in what we think." An early Bush supporter, Mr. Herbster now consults frequently with the transition team and said he is happy with the efforts made on Mr. Ashcroft's behalf. "The Republican National Committee, the Bush transition team-a lot of stuff is going on in support of this nomination. There was the Bush interview on NBC, where he went to the mat for Ashcroft. What else can you ask for? You can't win this in the media; it's all going on behind the scenes."
Mike Schwartz, vice president for government relations at Concerned Women for America, argued that Bush officials may need to learn "how things work in Washington. They're bright people and they'll be quick learners, but they were real slow in getting this nomination going."
TeamBush, hoping to decrease hard-edged criticism of opponents and be given some slack by them-no sign of that yet-worries about demonstrations on behalf of nominees. For example: As Mr. Ashcroft worked his way down the line of well-wishers along Delaware Avenue on Tuesday, a pastor suddenly blocked his way and began to pray loudly. As TV cameras swooped in, the pastor was quickly joined by dozens of other supporters, raising their hands and their voices against "the forces of evil" that opposed the nominee.
Clearly, calling the opposition "evil" was not the image TeamBush wanted splashed across the front page of the nation's newspapers. Though an aide tugged at his elbow, Mr. Ashcroft remained politely in place, his head bowed awkwardly, until the pastor said his "Amen." When the unscripted moment was finally over, Mr. Ashcroft murmured a thank-you and turned quickly to disappear into the Senate office building.
Inside, during the hearings, when asked by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) whether he would "enforce the laws of this land irrespective of your personal beliefs," Mr. Ashcroft replied: "I will. My primary personal belief is that the law is supreme, that I don't place myself above the law, that I shouldn't place myself above the law.... So it would violate my beliefs to do it."
One liberal senator after another voiced skepticism that Mr. Ashcroft could enforce laws with which he disagreed. The nominee insisted that the very beliefs questioned by the Democrats would hold him to the highest standards of conduct as the nation's chief law-enforcement official.
The hearings were front-loaded with hostile witnesses, culminating in the Thursday testimony of Ronnie White, a black Missouri judge whose nomination to the federal bench was blocked by Mr. Ashcroft. Critics charged that Mr. Ashcroft's opposition to the White nomination was motivated by racism, though Mr. Ashcroft himself pointed out that he had voted to confirm 24 out of President Clinton's 26 black judicial nominees.
Repeatedly, over three days of hearings, Mr. Ashcroft expressed that, "As a man of faith, I take my word and my integrity seriously. So when I swear to uphold the law, I will keep my oath, so help me God."