Vanity Fair's kitty litter

Judy Bachrach's profile of John Ashcroft in the February issue of Vanity Fair (available only in the print edition) is not merely a smear job but a sustained attack on Ashcroft's faith. The piece is most annoying for its recycling of the absurd rumor that Ashcroft considers calico cats "instruments of the Devil." Bachrach's tone about Ashcroft's faith is the sort of thing one might expect from Vanity Fair, alternating between breathless shock that Anyone Could Believe Such Things and the most sinister assumptions about what drives Ashcroft's political life.

A few examples:

At 61, he is a devout member of the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination that disapproves of drinking, dancing, and pre-marital sex. As a boy, he never went to the movies, because, he has said, his parents told him, "If you pay 15 cents to get into a movie, 7 cents of that will go to support a Hollywood lifestyle we disagree with."

Bachrach later mentions that Ashcroft's humor "is spiked with a gift for mimicking nearly anybody, most notably characters from The Simpsons." Ashcroft clearly has surpassed his parents' prohibitions of imbibing from Hollywood's chalice of evil lifestyles, but why let that stand in the way of depicting him as a prig?

But he is not indifferent to power and its trappings -- indeed, he harbored strong presidential hopes as late as 1998 -- and it is in his nature to combine piety with ambition. In 1995, for example, when he became the junior senator from Missouri, he was anointed by friends (in the style of "the ancient kings of Israel," he has noted) with Crisco oil from the kitchen.

Memo to Vanity Fair editors: Millions of Christians, including Catholic and Episcopal priests, anoint people with oil for various reasons: for healing, for sealing a baptism, for invoking God's blessings as a believer embarks on a new challenge. Yes, the Crisco adds a delicious accent of classism -- how utterly redneck of Ashcroft's friends! -- but people must sometimes improvise. Most writers even vaguely familiar with Christian practice would recognize such an anointing as an act of humility, not of ambition.

Although [Mel] Carnahan was a devout Baptist, he was also, by Missouri standards, pretty liberal, its first openly pro-choice governor. However, [Carnahan's campaign manager] Roy Temple adds, "The only thing more offensive than a nonbeliever to Ashcroft is a believer who is non-fundamentalist."

Define fundamentalist, please, especially in a way that recognizes a fundamental rule from The Associated Press Stylebook: "In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself."

Finally, the most luscious delicacy on the menu of carved Ashcroft:

The oddest details seemed to carry grave theological implications, even in the Netherlands, where Ashcroft attended an international anti-corruption conference in May 2001. There, a trio of Siamese cats scampering about the residence of Cynthia Schneider, the U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands, produced alarm in the Justice advance team, according to a highly placed source. "Are there any calico cats at the residence?" they inquired of embassy staff. Ashcroft, who would be dining with Schneider, considered such creatures "instruments of the Devil," his people explained. (Ashcroft has denied any antipathy toward calico cats.)

Ah, you have to love that "highly placed source," especially one who insists on anonymity while peddling a tale that can be traced back no further than one opinion column by Andrew Tobias, treasurer of the Democratic National Committee.

Rather than simply passing along the story wholesale, like so many would-be satirists have done, The American Enterprise magazine did an astonishing thing: It asked Ashcroft whether he had any idea how the rumor got started.

Ashcroft's response: "Absolutely none. All I can think of is the poem by Eugene Field about a duel between a gingham dog and calico cat. In any case, there's no truth to it. I owned a calico cat -- on the farm I lived on until I went away to be the state auditor of Missouri."

Such a clear denial of hostility toward calico cats should be enough to lay this silliness -- more precisely, this religious bigotry -- to rest. But that interview appeared online a full year ago, and Vanity Fair still treats an anonymous accusation, attributed only to one "highly placed source," as an established fact of history -- in an article suggesting that Ashcroft is one of the worst threats to truth and liberty in America. In such an important cause, it appears, any weapon will do.

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