For some national Jewish groups, Alberto Gonzales already has one thing in his favor as he enters a tough confirmation battle as President Bush’s second attorney general: He isn’t John Ashcroft. Ashcroft was a lightning rod for criticism from liberal groups, and several Jewish leaders said seeing him resign as attorney general this week was a relief.
Ashcroft “was extreme in his policies and advanced an agenda that was antithetical to the National Council of Jewish Women’s positions on issues,” said Sammie Moshenberg, director of NCJW’s Washington office.
NCJW is still assessing Gonzales, but Moshenberg — and other Jewish leaders who insisted on speaking off the record — said Gonzales was unlikely to face the same level of opposition Ashcroft did.
“Ashcroft was the exception, not the rule,” Moshenberg said of NCJW’s decision to formally oppose his nomination in 2001. “It is unusual for us to come out opposed to a presidential Cabinet pick. We’re going into this looking at Gonzales’ record with the presumption that he probably reflects the president’s views, and the president is entitled to pick people who reflect his views.”
Jewish legislators sounded a similar note.
“We will have to review his record very carefully, but I can tell you already he’s a better candidate than John Ashcroft,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Bush already knew Ashcroft was resigning when, after his re-election, he extended his hand to Americans who voted against him and pledged to move forward in bipartisanship.
In his handwritten resignation letter — signed with a typical religious flourish, “May God continue to bless, guide and direct you” — Ashcroft alluded to a recent illness. But Bush might also have seen an opportunity for outreach by replacing a polarizing figure with a relative moderate.
The White House’s farewell statement to Ashcroft was muted, “applauding” and “appreciating” his service. In contrast, Bush’s greeting to Gonzales was effusive, noting that the president’s confidence in Gonzales has “grown with time.”
As a U.S. senator from Missouri, Ashcroft alienated many in the organized Jewish community when he introduced pioneering legislation in 1996 to funnel federal funds to religious institutions that provide social services.
In 2001, Ashcroft was confirmed as attorney general by a bare Senate majority, reflecting an unusually high level of opposition for a Cabinet pick. Within weeks he was fulfilling some Jewish groups’ fears, leading Justice Department staff in bible study sessions.
Ashcroft’s avid pursuit of terrorists after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks led to further complications, especially with the civil liberties community. Especially galling to some were his emphasis on secrecy and his attempts to impose blanket closures on hearings involving immigrants.
Ashcroft was instrumental in the drafting of the Patriot Act, which passed overwhelmingly in the months after Sept. 11 and expanded the government’s terrorism-fighting powers. Many in the Jewish community and in Congress felt Ashcroft interpreted the act’s powers too broadly.
Mark Stern, co-director of the American Jewish Congress’ legal department, said some of the criticism was unfair.
“The war on terrorism posed questions any attorney general would have found difficult,” Stern said. “No one could have served in that position in a time such as this and escaped criticism.”
Ashcroft got a much better reception from the Orthodox Jewish community, which welcomed his public expressions of faith and his opening of more doors for religion in government.
“We’ve had an incredibly productive four years,” said Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs. “We urged them to make religious-liberty issues a specific priority for the department.”
Diament said Ashcroft’s Justice Department pushed to give religious groups and individuals equal footing under the law, advocating for religious land-use laws and backing school vouchers at the U.S. Supreme Court. The department also was a key player in the fight to give religious charities federal funds to provide social services.
“We were pleased that the Department of Justice, through its faith-based office, was the legal support team for the faith-based initiatives,” Diament said.
Stern said Ashcroft tended to err on the side of prosecutorial zeal rather than civil liberties.
“Some of the criticism was merited,” he said. “We believe his successor, Mr. Gonzales, will be able to adjust course to balance the war on terror with the distinct American values embedded in the Constitution.”
As a Texas Supreme Court justice — who was appointed by then-Gov. George W. Bush — Gonzales earned a reputation as a relative moderate.
But some aspects of his service as White House counsel in the last administration troubled human-rights groups.
They charge that Gonzales’s description, in an internal memo in the lead-up to the Iraq war, of the Geneva Conventions as “quaint” and “obsolete” helped promote a lax culture that culminated in the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison. Additionally, Gonzales consulted with Bush on nominations of profoundly conservative judges to federal courts.
Gonzales’ effusive endorsement from the Christian Coalition also won’t win him points with some Jewish groups.
“We look forward to Alberto Gonzales — when he is confirmed as attorney general — continuing the tough policies instituted by Attorney General Ashcroft against terrorists which have protected America from another horrendous attack,” said Roberta Combs, president of the powerful evangelical lobby group. “We believe that the United States Senate will confirm him overwhelmingly.”
Some of Gonzales’s pluses — his ethnic background and the fact that he is seen as less of an ideologue — will help him overcome the avid opposition Ashcroft inspired in so many.
Bush emphasized Gonzales’ background as one of eight children of Mexican migrant workers, a nod to Hispanic Americans who voted for Bush on Nov. 2 in considerably greater numbers than they did in 2000.
While Jewish voters also gave Bush more support in 2004, it was predominantly because of his foreign policy rather than his social and domestic policy priorities. It’s anticipated that Gonzales and other Bush administration officials will continue to reach out to religious conservatives, including Orthodox Jews, on those fronts.
Staff Writer Matthew E. Berger in Washington contributed to this report.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.