Over at Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall has given voice to some of the murmuring about whether former Attorney General John Ashcroft is a 4th Amendment hero in light of former Deputy Attorney General James Comey's testimony before Congress last week.
For those who somehow missed this firestorm, evidently Bush Chief of Staff Andrew Card and Counsel (and present AG) Alberto Gonzalez raced to the hospital bedside of Ashcroft to attempt to reauthorize the illegal wiretaps that they were conducting outside of FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act). This despite the fact that James Comey was acting AG in light of Ashcroft's surgery and hospitalization (and opposed to the extrajudicial surveillance). Comey heard about the pending visit, and raced there ahead of them, prompting Ashcroft, in his weakened state, to stand up and oppose it when Card & Gonzalez got there, with everyone threatening to resign if the plan went forward over their objections.
Dramatic stuff, and it certainly paints Ashcroft in a more favorable light than someone of the ilk of Public Defender Dude would normally be inclined to give him credit for (and you can go to the TPM article for more details on the many reasons to have disliked Ashcroft over the years).
More interesting to me is, how do we explain this? Was Ashcroft not as right wing and ideological as we thought? Did we underestimate him? Were these other people just so over the top that they made him look moderate?
I have a theory. Generally, I think that Ashcroft is as right wing an ideologue as we are ever likely to see. However, he has a very specific ideology that adheres to some basic principles, some of which he actually shares with those on other ends of the political spectrum (such as some degree of adherence to the 4th Amendment). It is possible to go too far for even his principles, despite the fact that his regular state is so far over the edge already. Be that as it may, he is a person of principles, and when dealing with people of principles, it is possible to go too far.
I believe that the Bush Administration is filled in many respects with people without any principles except power. The rot obviously starts at the top, but it is exemplified by people like Cheney, Harriet Myers, and Alberto Gonzalez - who appears willing to destroy the Justice Department and decades long traditions of non-political interference in the administration of justice in order to achieve short-term political gains, such as having a few hundred less people vote in some jurisdictions in order to possibly swing those votes in the GOP's favor.
Gonzalez is one of the greatest examples of a lack of any discerning principles except power. When he served as Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court, he struck down a law that required parental consent for abortions, angering many right wingers. I don't believe that he had any strong moral principles that made him do this (nor any compelling legal authority - the Texas Supreme Court had upheld laws banning sodomy). Later, of course he has become one of the great fighters against abortion in all circumstances, with his latest victory in the Supreme Court, it is apparent he and the Bush Administration have left Roe hanging by the most narrow of threads (one more resignation - that's all it takes. Hold in there John Paul Stevens).
In office, Gonzalez has shown a willingness to sign on to anything that Cheney has asked him to do, without the slightest reservations. Whether it is the torture memos, the surveillance program, Guantanamo, and lord knows what else (the signing statements?), he is willing to go with anything in service of power - his, and his governments. He is willing to provide the flimsiest of legal justification for whatever action the Bush administration wants to take.
Cheney and Bush, of course, wish to do whatever they want as leaders, and have only the slightest regard for the democratic process, here or in the rest of the world. Principles are completely divorced from their manner of governing. They have brought quite a few lackeys along with them that apparently agree with that.
Gonzalez is clearly one of them.
Ashcroft was clearly not. He agreed with them vociferously on 95% of what they did, but that 5% went so over the line, it was apparently too much for even him.