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Ashcroft is the wrong pick

Two things about John Ashcroft, President-elect George W. Bush's nominee to head the Justice Department.

He shouldn't be confirmed as attorney general.

He probably will be.

Why shouldn't he be? The short answer is that the one-term senator from Missouri, defeated for re-election last month by a dead man, seems certain to be a highly divisive force in an administration committed to healing across lines of party, ideology and race.

How divisive? Both the Christian Coalition and Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum gave Ashcroft 100 percent ratings for the year. The National Organization for Women and the environmentalist League of Conservation Voters gave him zero. The American Civil Liberties Union gave him a modest 14 percent.

Some of the division is ideological _ even theological. The 58-year-old former Missouri governor is pro-life for fetuses, pro-death for a wide range of criminals, in favor of vouchers and school prayer, for a constitutional amendment to ban desecration of the flag, and, at best, shaky on gay-rights issues. Ashcroft, whose minister father moved the family to Springfield, Mo., from Chicago so they could be nearer the world headquarters of the Assembly of God Church, is guided by his religious faith in many of his positions.

He can be a thoughtful man, as witness his efforts to wrestle his way through two apparently contradictory notions: the constitutional importance of church/state separation and the fact that faith-based organizations often are particularly successful at some of the things government tries to do _ drug abuse rehabilitation for one.

His solution: "charitable choice" legislation that allows religious organizations to receive federal money for social services without creating separate non-religious entities to do so.

But some of Ashcroft's positions have seemed to me less well-motivated _ even mean-spirited _ as in his leadership role in opposing the confirmation of Bill Lann Lee for assistant attorney general for civil rights or his torpedoing of a federal judgeship for Ronnie White, the first black member of the Missouri Supreme Court. Lee was too sympathetic to affirmative action, which Ashcroft opposes; White was too reluctant to order the death penalty, which Ashcroft loves.

Sometimes it's hard to figure what, apart from his deeply held religious principles and conservative views, drives Ashcroft. For instance, during all the hoopla about racial profiling, he opposed legislation to allow the gathering of racial statistics on traffic stops. How could you not want to know whether law agencies were playing it straight?

Probably none of this would matter an awful lot for one of 100 senators. But the attorney general is the nation's chief prosecutor, its chief guardian of the Bill of Rights and, critically important in the present case, the person most responsible for articulating and interpreting the Constitution and the values of the executive branch.

Someone suggested that the Ashcroft nomination, following the nominations of black and Hispanic moderates to the Bush Cabinet, was the president-elect's effort to throw a bone to the religious right. To which the ACLU's Laura Murphy responded: "He didn't throw a bone; he threw the whole carcass."

And he'll likely get away with it. Ashcroft not only served in the Senate, which must confirm the nomination, but was a member of the Judiciary Committee, which will bring the nomination forward to the full body. It's rare for the Senate to refuse to confirm a colleague.

But it has happened. In the interest of George W. Bush's commitment to healing America _ in the interest of America itself _ I hope members of the Senate will recognize that, no matter what they think of Ashcroft personally, he's the wrong man for this job.

William Raspberry is a Washington Post columnist.

Washington Post Writers Group