Jeffrey Rosen's lengthy profile of John Ashcroft in the April Atlantic is testimony to what makes this magazine essential reading. Let Vanity Fair propagate the urban legend about Ashcroft's fear of calico cats and express its horror that Ashcroft's father once anointed him with Crisco. Rosen has better work to do: Engaging Ashcroft as a politician and a thinker. Rosen's article is not yet available online, but his Q&A with Sage Stossel, senior editor of The Atlantic Online, offers a good summary.
One of the more remarkable aspects of Rosen's article is that he refers to fundamentalists without malice:
I asked Ashcroft if he thought that prejudice against fundamentalist Christians might explain some of the more outrageous caricatures of him. My wife, I mentioned, was raised as a fundamentalist Christian; her biological mother was a member of Ashcroft's church, the Assemblies of God, and she attended fundamentalist schools. Although no longer a believer, my wife has often been struck by the many ways in which secular culture misunderstands fundamentalists. Fundamentalist Christians, my wife believes, are one of the few religious groups that many Americans feel free to hold in open contempt. Did he agree?
"I don't know," he said cautiously. He seemed uncomfortable at the idea of casting himself as the victim of anti-fundamentalist prejudice, though the suggestion clearly registered. (At the end of my interview with him, he looked at me earnestly and clapped me on the shoulder. "Tell your wife thank you for helping someone like you understand a guy like me.")
Rosen does not give Ashcroft a kid-glove treatment. He raises fair criticisms of the Patriot Act and of Ashcroft's resistance to compromise on some of its far from crucial finer points. And he explores an angle largely neglected by most articles: Ashcroft is a political pragmatist who willingly disappoints his core supporters. Rosen addresses the point in his interview with Stossel:
The further I got into the piece and the more people I talked to, the more I became persuaded that the view of him as politically, as opposed to ideologically, motivated was correct. On all the issues the right cares most about, Ashcroft has disappointed them. Before 9/11, for example, he enforced abortion clinic access laws, and in general he's devoted himself to universally popular priorities -- like safe neighborhoods and the war on drugs -- that aren't all that different from what Janet Reno's were. Over and over again, his colleagues have told me that he's not some sort of zealot determined to efface American liberties, but that he reads the polls pretty closely and tends to act based on those.
The most refreshing surprise in Rosen's profile concerns Ashcroft's intellectual curiosity, which led him to an unrequited respect for Gore Vidal:
Ashcroft asked me a question. "Did you read that Gore Vidal book about Lincoln?" I confessed that I had loved it. "That's a great book!" he agreed. "You know, people wouldn't think of me and Gore Vidal in the same breath, but you gotta respect the guy; he has a tremendous intellect." (Several weeks later Vidal would deem him part of an "alien army.")