Yesterday the New York Times delivered another of its sandwiches, the Ashcroft special, in which the attorney general is the dead meat, the bread confining him darkly toasted, and the lettuce and tomato smeared in fatty mayonnaise. Then once the consumer has it in his hands and takes one bite, it falls apart — at which point he discovers the Times provided no napkins with which to wipe up the greasy mess.
There would appear to be no secret to the Times’ recipe. First the page one headline: “Ashcroft’s Terrorism Policies Dismay Some Conservatives.” Imagine that. “Some conservatives” suddenly have clout. That’s because, as the first paragraphs suggest, Ashcroft is suddenly in trouble with the same “religious conservatives” who once pressed for his appointment but who now fear his anti-terrorist policies give government too much power. Yet who are these “religious” conservatives? The Washington-based president of the Family Research Council is quoted expressing fear that somehow these new powers could be used against groups like his. How so is never explained. The Washington-based Grover Norquist, never thought to be a religious conservative, is also quoted as saying Ashcrofts’s “religious base is now quite troubled by what he’s done” — but the reader has to take his word for it, which is odd given that the Times doesn’t normally take Norquist at face value. If this keeps this up, how long before Norquist has to nominate himself for his own Kevin Phillips award? (To be fair, Norquist has openly criticized Ashcroft’s policies before, which the Times doesn’t bother to relate.)
Meanwhile, we never hear a word from any of those famous “religious conservatives” in the great American outback the Times always worries about — presumably because they remain nothing more than an abstraction in the paper’s mind, a bogeyman source of fear and loathing in liberal land. When the story does return to anyone remotely linked to religious conservatives, it’s Washington-based Paul Weyrich, who late in the piece expands on what the head of the Washington-based Family Research Council told the Times. “There is suddenly a great concern that what was passed in the wake of 9-11 were things that had little to do with catching terrorists but a lot to do with increasing the strength of government to infiltrate and spy on conservative organizations.” But again there’s no effort to explain how this might be done. Weyrich added that at a recent weekly luncheon that he holds for “about 60 social conservative groups” — what is that supposed to mean? — “the majority expressed concern about Ashcroft.” But what kind of concern? About Ashcroft’s recent demonstration of tolerance for gays that mightily upset some “social conservative groups”? That would normally a topic of great interest to the Times, but for some strange reason it never comes up in this story.
Nor is does it offer any information about what the minority might have argued at the Weyrich luncheon. So much for the Times fabled concern for minority opinion. The paper does quote Weyrich as noting that “the grassroots enthusiasm for [Ashcroft] has been tamped down.” But what does anyone in Washington ever know about the grassroots, when most of the time is spent talking to one another?
But the clincher comes when the reader realizes the story is not about religious conservative unhappiness with Ashcroft at all. More than two-thirds of its space is devoted to alleged friction between the White House and Ashcroft in the making of anti-terrorist policy. (This is a sandwich of a story in more ways than one.) According to several Bush advisers, Ashcroft, “with his life-long politician’s fondness for attention, has projected himself too often and too forcefully.” Worse, they “privately” say, “he seems to be overstating the evidence of terrorist threats.” So suddenly a White House that recently was under fire from the likes of the Times for misreading pre-9/11 signals is given a sympathetic hearing by the paper when some of its officials choose to down play subsequent threats. But that just leaves the Times rehashing the Lindh, Padilla, and USA Patriot Act stories.
On top of that, a paper not known to be friendly to President Bush is happy to make him look good if that means it can depict an attorney general it loathes as a zealous free-lancer. Bush, it writes, rescued Ashcroft from “political oblivion.” But the men are “hardly confidants,” according to a long-time Bush friend, perhaps because their personalities are so different: the “highly formal” Ashcroft not fitting easily into Bush’s “more bantering style.” Now for some political science: Bush represents the GOP’s business-wing, while Ashcroft — hold on for the stereotype of the year — “is more typical of social-issue Republicans who sit in the front pew of the church on Sunday.” Those of us who never attend church know the type exactly. Must have seen it in some movie.
But so long as we and the Times are on the subject of Bush’s relations with Ashcroft, in a piece ostensibly sparked by sudden anti-Ashcroftism on the part of religious conservatives, why does the story attempt no analysis of Bush’s own strongly religious beliefs and how they may be the basis of a certain bond with the clearly religious Ashcroft? Wouldn’t that alarm the Times a lot more than anything it reports so far?
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