AUSTIN, Texas -- Awwww, Ashcroft! My man. The one I liked best of the whole Cabinet, the most consistently entertaining, the most the most deliciously inept, the most amazingly wrong-headed. Ashcroft, my personal Bush administration icon. And besides, he's so sexy.

How can we forget the golden moments? The day he covered up the nekkid tit on a statue of the Spirit of Justice in the Justice Department headquarters because we can't have that kind of thing. His fabulous pre-9/11 record, especially the day he finally told his top terror guy he just didn't "want to hear about it."

And then there's his even more fabulous post-9/11 record. Indicting Zacarias Moussaoui as the "20th hijacker" when it turned out, oops, that was somebody else. What a showcase for American justice that trial has been. And the famous case of Jose Padilla, the alleged "dirty bomber" who not only didn't have any dirty bombs, he didn't even have a plan to get one.

Notwithstanding all this, Padilla, an American citizen, has been declared an enemy combatant and held incommunicado for three years. He does not have a right to a speedy trial or indeed any trial at all. He is not allowed to talk to a lawyer, not allowed to know the charges against him, not allowed to confront his accusers. I repeat, this is an American citizen, and the same thing can happen to any of us. Courtesy of John Ashcroft's contribution to American law, the PATRIOT Act.

Ashcroft and the Feds rounded up and, in many cases, abused the rights of Arab citizens, non-citizens, green card holders, student visa holders, and anyone and everyone of the Arab persuasion. People were held for months (even years) without charge, and their families were not told where they were or what they were charged with. Some were deported for visa violations, and others who had come here as refugees from political persecution up and left after their fun experience with American justice.

During the recent campaign, Ashcroft claimed the Justice Department had successfully prosecuted 300 terrorists. These "successful prosecutions" were under the federal law that makes it a crime to provide "material support" to anyone remotely connected with terrorism -- and include such crimes as petty theft, making fake drivers licenses and unlicensed money transfers. The median sentence for these convicted "terrorists"? Two weeks.

But none of this prevented our A.G. from going after some other menaces to our safety and security, such as people who grow marijuana for medical purposes even in states where that's legal and harassing doctors in Oregon, where assisted suicide was legalized by referendum.

Actually, Ashcroft's DOJ has a pretty good record on white-collar crime, and I'm not talking just about the genius it took to nail that menace to all we hold dear, Martha Stewart. DOJ went after the Enron players in classic work-your-way-up fashion and may yet nab them. True, Ashcroft has not exactly been Eliot Spitzer when it comes to uncovering white-collar fraud, but at least he prosecutes after other people find it.

I think Ashcroft was more Bozo the Clown than Darth Vader. True, his post 9/11 statement has an ominous ring: "To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve."

OK, it's a statement. But all the man really wanted to do was fight Internet porn and harass doctors for performing abortions. He wanted more executions, he gave more rights to gun owners, and he subpoenaed the medical records of abortion providers. He had his priorities straight. So he never quite got democracy.

What an unusual day that was when he simply refused to provide a Senate committee with a Justice Department memo on why torture should be legal. Ashcroft just never appreciated judicial or congressional oversight because he didn't quite grasp the separation of powers. Hey, he lost a political race to a dead guy -- what do you want from him?

John Ashcroft was installed as attorney general of the United States as a sop to the religious right. All his right-wing crusades, including the famous tit, were meant to solidify the Republican base in the so-called culture wars. Unfortunately, a more urgent war came up -- a threat Ashcroft had glaringly failed to recognize, according to the FBI -- and Ashcroft and others saw it as an opportunity to destroy constitutional protections that had annoyed law enforcement agents for years.

The Fourth Amendment is pretty much gone now, and the First is under fire. And should you complain about these phantoms of lost liberty, you are just aiding he terrorists. What a record. He blew the fight against terrorism, but he covered up tits on statues. The sad thing is, I understand he's really a nice man.

Perhaps we can conclude that it is not a good idea to name someone chiefly noted for rigid, ideological zealotry as attorney general. We might even conclude that just a shade more -- how to say this -- intelligence might be useful.

Calm down, this is not some condescending Blue State disparagement of Red State intellectual prowess. As one Red Stater to another, I'm just saying that when a politician loses to a dead guy, it's, like, kind of tip, OK?

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