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Larry King Live
John Ashcroft Discusses His New Job as Attorney GeneralAired February 7, 2001 - 9:00 p.m. ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
LARRY KING, HOST: Tonight, an exclusive conversation with Attorney General John Ashcroft. It's his first interview since the bitter fight over his nomination, and it comes just hours after a shooting outside the White House. It's next, on LARRY KING LIVE.
General Ashcroft, always good to welcome you to LARRY KING LIVE. It's many appearances, but now first time as a general.
What can you tell us -- any aftermath of today's incident? Anything you know now?
JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES: No, I'm grateful that no one was killed. I'm grateful that they were able to take the individual who was the offender into custody without having to lose his life, and certainly, as much traffic and as much population as is in that setting, to be able to apprehend him and to disarm him without the loss of life is commendable, and I'm just grateful for that.
Obviously, there are a lot of questions to be answered, and there is a lot of -- a lot of -- a lot of the story is now being unfolded. If you really want to know this, watch CNN.
KING: It reduces the chance, though, of opening up Pennsylvania Avenue again, doesn't it?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Oh, I think it elevates for us the concern that always exists in a free culture and free society, that someone will go in the wrong direction.
KING: Which brings us right to one area. You've had a long history with regard to guns and gun control, and now you're attorney general. And this was a gun. And a gun could have been used. Any thoughts?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, obviously, guns are dangerous, and they are a big problem. Gun violence in the country is a big problem, and the way we know that we can reduce gun violence is to prosecute gun violence energetically. We have seen gun laws proliferate, and we have seen gun violence continue to go up.
As a matter of fact, during the last eight years we saw gun prosecutions, though, go down by 46 percent while we were passing more gun laws. I think what the real key is, and I want to emphasize this if I get a chance and I believe I will have that chance as attorney general, to emphasize that we're going to take a hard line on people who use guns in the commission of crime.
You go to Richmond, Virginia where they have what's called Project Exile. Basically, say if you use a gun in the commission of a crime, we're going to stack the penalties against you as hard as we can. In implementing that program in the U.S. Attorney's office there, they cut the murder rate by about 42 percent in the first year, and the law enforcement officials said that they cut the use of guns in the commission of crimes by about 50 percent.
Even when I was in the Senate, I was kind of seeing this project and working toward implementing it in other settings, and I think we'll want to do that across the country.
KING: Do you agree, general, with the laws being made very tough as possible to get a gun?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, I think that we've got enough laws on the books. I think what we need is tougher enforcement. It's pretty clear...
KING: On both sides, getting and using?
JOHN ASHCROFT: .. well, for people who buy guns illegally, they ought to be -- or acquire guns against the law, and you know, it's against the law for felons to have guns, and a wide variety of regulations exist, but for illegal use of a gun in the commission of a crime and for illegal possession of a gun, those crimes need to be prosecuted.
Law-abiding citizens have a right under our Constitution to have firearms. But there is no reason for us to look the other way when people who misuse them commit crimes. We should nail them.
KING: How did you find out you were going to be attorney general? Who called you and what was the...
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, you know, I had a call from, obviously, the president's operation, and they haven't released me to tell those details, and I know it would be interesting. It was very interesting to me. They haven't said I shouldn't, but, you know, I...
KING: Did you think you would be in line for this job?
JOHN ASHCROFT: I can say this, that I wrote to the president and offered to serve him and indicated that I thought I could do the attorney general's job, but that's all that I did, and that was weeks before I got a call. And when I got a call, I was prepared to respond to the call.
KING: Why, and some have asked this, why with your strong beliefs, let's say in the area of Roe-Wade, why you would want a job where you have to enforce laws you don't agree with?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, obviously, everyone who enforces any laws enforces laws that they don't agree with. None of us agree with all of the permutations of all the laws. Ninety-nine and forty-four-one- hundredths percent of the laws in this country are laws that are totally consistent with my beliefs, and as a matter of fact, the laws that relate to stopping violence around abortion clinics, I believe in.
Everybody knows that I'm pro-life. I mean, that's not a surprise to anyone, having been attorney general and governor and senator. But I have never said that we ought to have women who are exercising their right to have an abortion subject to violence or intimidation or strong-arm tactics.
KING: So, it's not going to be painful for you, knowing how strong you feel on this...
JOHN ASHCROFT: To protect someone from violence and intimidation is the responsibility of the government whenever a person exercises a right. And for me to enforce those laws will not be difficult in the least. As a matter of fact, I abhor the kind of approach to opposition to abortion that would be violent.
I voted as United States senator to deny bankruptcy protections to an individual who wanted to declare bankruptcy after they had committed violence against an abortion clinic or otherwise deprived through intimidation or violence a woman of her right.
KING: So, you'll be a strong attorney general in that area?
JOHN ASHCROFT: You know, when I raised my hand to enforce the law, I meant all of it. I have been attorney general for eight years of my own state. I was governor for eight years. I was state auditor, which is a kind of financial enforcement official.
I have never had a hard time enforcing the law. I have always believed that people who put themselves above the law and say that I'm smarter than the law and therefore I shouldn't enforce this or I should change that, were adverse to the interests of our culture.
We are a culture that respects law, and I certainly want to be that. And I have made that pledge, and I would break the most important of my own convictions if I didn't enforce the law.
KING: Do you ever see a time or envision a time where your faith might interfere with that to put you in a moral dilemma?
JOHN ASHCROFT: If my faith ever really interfered with my enforcing the law, it would be rare. My faith is, and the way I read the Bible and I do read the Bible, is that people are supposed to obey the law and that the authority is duly constituted and is in place as a result of God's will. And that people who believe like I do, their belief is to obey the government and the law.
KING: You couldn't envision where that... (CROSSTALK)
KING: If it did, you'd have to quit?
JOHN ASHCROFT: I'd have to resign. You know, we have had some good attorneys general who have had to resign. You remember the Saturday Night Massacre...
KING: Sure do.
JOHN ASHCROFT: You're not that much younger than I am.
KING: Keep it up. Keep it up.
JOHN ASHCROFT: But I don't see -- that really wasn't...
KING: That was a stand on principle.
JOHN ASHCROFT: Oh, it was a stand on principle and we need people in government who will stand on principle and who love principle more than they love their jobs.
KING: So, if you were even in such a position, you would say...
JOHN ASHCROFT: But enforcing the law is one of my principles. That's one of the things I believe in. That's why I've devote my life to government. That's one of the things that -- you know, I think what separates a free society from any other culture is the rule of law. And if I decide that I can set the rule of law aside, so can everyone else and you don't have a free society. You have anarchy.
KING: Our guest, the 79th attorney general of the United States -- a lot more attorneys general than presidents, huh?
KING: Hanging by a thread. Almost double more -- little less than double the amount. Don't get a mortgage. We'll be right back with Attorney General John Ashcroft right after this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
QUESTION: How are you doing?
JOHN ASHCROFT: It's good to see you. Hello.
QUESTION: Are you going to speak afterwards?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: That was the day that John Ashcroft was sworn in by Judge Thomas at the United States -- what a thrill that must have been, huh? JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, it was. You know, Clarence and I -- pardon me -- Justice Thomas and I were office mates when we were both assistant attorneys general in Missouri in 1975. We sat in the same room with two other guys for 16 months, and it wasn't a very big room. We got to know each other pretty well.
KING: That's why you asked him to do it?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Oh, it was -- yes. And he -- I respect all the members of the Court. And as a matter of fact, I went to those arguments in the Bush versus Gore last year, and it was inspiring to see the kind of quality of question and analysis...
KING: Both sides?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Yes, yes. But Justice Thomas is one that I've known for a quarter of a century. We -- we have a son that's the age of his son, and it was just a real thrill for me to be able to ask him to swear me in.
KING: Do you resent, are you angered at the way many of your fellow senators treated you at the hearings and the fact that 42 of them said no?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, I think the Senate came to the right conclusion. So...
KING: But were you angered...
JOHN ASHCROFT: You know, as Dick Vitale says a W is a W and an L is an L. So we got the "L" out of there, so to speak, and we had the "W."
The 42, they have to make up their own minds. I learned as a senator that senators do things for a variety of purposes.
KING: Weren't you a tough questioner, though, if you had someone up there that you had doubts about? Wouldn't you have been?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, I think -- I think we ought to err on the side of being tough in our questioning and not being easy. I think asking people tough questions -- and frankly, if the -- if the questions are already being asked in the culture and the nominee who doesn't have much opportunity to speak generally -- they try to kind of keep the Cabinet nominees to themselves, wait for the hearing -- if you don't have a chance to answer those things, you don't have a chance to tell the truth when you're in the committee hearings, some of the stuff is never answered.
So my own view was that I -- yes, there's no question that it was an aggressive or an energetic hearing. And I suppose there are times that some things might have been said that -- aren't the most pleasing. But if you're going to err, err on the side of toughness.
KING: Did you ever come close to showing public anger?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, I wasn't angry. So...
KING: You're not angry at Ted Kennedy or...
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, you know, my mother always taught me that I couldn't really be hurt by what came out of other people's mouths, that what would hurt me would be what came out of my mouth. And if individuals would have called me a traitor or say that I was a madman, I really didn't think that was going to be a very serious problem for me.
I -- having been a president of the National Governors Association, or chairman of that, and president of the National Association of Attorneys General and six years as a senator, I have -- I have a life of public service that I figured if it couldn't refute that kind of charge, it probably wouldn't work.
KING: Were you surprised at national reaction, pro and con?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well...
KING: You became the symbol of -- saying, you know, uniter, not a divider. You were the example against that. A picture of you on the front cover of some magazines, not flattering kind of picture. Were you shocked by that?
JOHN ASHCROFT: It's hard to get a flattering picture of me.
KING: There was one, though, that made you look like Darth Vader. I mean...
JOHN ASHCROFT: Maybe I'll get a job in the media -- I mean, pardon me entertainment.
KING: Were you shocked or not shocked?
JOHN ASHCROFT: I think there was more attention than I had expected. I certainly didn't expect to wind up on the front covers of the news magazines all at the same time. And as a matter of fact, I had sort of disregarded the indication that I was going to be photographed the next day when my staff said I was, and I didn't know it was for. And I felt like I needed to have worn a better suit when they came in and they all took these pictures, and the next week, it was on the -- on the newsstands.
So but I -- I didn't anticipate that there would be quite as much focus.
KING: When you look back on things -- and the Judge White thing comes to mind. And you went there. I'm not going to take you through the whole hassle of it again. If you had to do it over again, would you have done that differently?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, I think we came to the right result on Judge White, and I did, because, you know, as one member of the Supreme Court of Missouri, when he would say that what I considered to be clear cases where the death penalty was appropriate and there wasn't any indication that the trial had reached the wrong result, he wanted to set that aside. If he were a federal judge, he could set aside, just like that. Six votes, seven votes on the Missouri Supreme Court, change the nature of the case, he didn't -- couldn't do that as the sole dissenter on the Missouri Supreme Court. I think we came to the right conclusion there.
And it's always tough when you...
KING: Is the method maybe tough?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, you know, I signaled my...
KING: Looking back.
JOHN ASHCROFT: ... distress with this appointment, voted against him in the first committee meeting. When he was reappointed after the election, or the Congress changed, I voted against him a second time, made clear my objections. I went to the floor of the United States Senate and spoke. And...
KING: So no regrets.
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, I -- I personally would -- I understand to be defeated in a contest like that is a disappointment, and I don't like to cause disappointments. But I think we came to the right result.
KING: We'll be right back with more of Attorney General John Ashcroft. Later, his wife will be joining us, the better half. Don't go away.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: I hope that the president has seen the sadness and the pain and the fear engendered by this nomination, and I hope that when he nominates people to the United States Supreme Court, we will not have a repeat of what has happened here today.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: Was the race issue a bum rap?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Oh, I think in every respect. I...
KING: You were surprised...
JOHN ASHCROFT: I abhor racism. I set the record for appointing minority judges in the state of Missouri as governor. No governor had ever appointed that many. I voted for 26 out of 27 minority candidates for judge to confirm them here. That's a higher ratio than I voted for the nonminority candidates. I voted for something like 218 out of 230 of the Clinton appointees for the judiciary.
I was the governor that signed the Martin Luther King holiday into existence in the state of Missouri at an early time, also by executive order before I got the law passed. Did that to respect Dr. Martin Luther King because I wanted our culture to have the kind of role models that we respect that included people in the minority community.
KING: Is religion a fair issue, do you think? In the overview, is a man or a woman's faith arguable with regard to the job they're going to serve?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, it's unconstitutional to have a religious test for public office. We just know that.
I think America really has come to the conclusion that people who take the oath of office and agree to uphold the Constitution and the laws, that that's enough.
We've struggled with that in our history, you know. We struggled with it in 1960. There were people in the country that said, uh-oh, we've never had a Catholic president and that Jack Kennedy somehow would as president be beholden to the pope in Italy, and we would compromise our sovereignty.
We got through that. We got past that. We understood that. We've had those kinds of episodes, but, you know, there are times when people misinterpret, misunderstand the faith that an individual has, and I guess it's understandable that that happens.
KING: Are you the only Pentecostal in the Senate? Were you the only Pentecostal in Senate?
JOHN ASHCROFT: You'd have to ask the rest of them. I have usually -- I've been alone on a number of occasions. You know, when I went to Yale University as a young man, I was the only person from my denomination that entered as a freshman that year, and so they automatically put me on the counsel for ecumenical. They invited me.
KING: One of the strongest growing denominations.
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, we have been from time to time. It's...
KING: Have you chosen someone to head the Civil Rights Division yet?
JOHN ASHCROFT: We're working on that, and I'm not prepared to make an announcement.
KING: Close? Are we close?
JOHN ASHCROFT: I hope we are. KING: Will it be an individual, and this will be widely debated when announced, who will strongly enforce civil rights laws?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Yes, absolutely.
KING: No doubt about it?
JOHN ASHCROFT: If it's not, I'll get another one. I don't have any intention -- discrimination is totally unacceptable. It simply can't exist. It can't exist. It can't exist in housing. We can't have discrimination in terms of voting rights. We have to have a very aggressive, thorough commitment to not discriminate. We can't have it in law enforcement.
I stated, when I held the only hearings ever held in the Senate, I believe, on racial profiling by the police, I think it's wrong to stop a person based on their race. I don't believe in identifying people based on racial characteristics, and then treating them differently on the basis of that.
It's just -- I think that's unconstitutional. And Russ Feingold, the senator from Wisconsin, had a bill and asked me to hold the hearings on the bill and I was glad to do it. He is on the right track there, and I think America needs to be a place where we don't treat people differently because of their race.
KING: I'm going to ask General Ashcroft what we can expect now. What are some things you're going to put into motion here as attorney general, and some other areas? His wife will be joining us as well. We'll also include some of your phone calls.
Tomorrow night, we'll look at the Marc Rich controversy. I'm going to ask him about that, too. Don't go away.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R-UT), JUDICIARY CHAIRMAN: I resent the calumny that they've heaped on John Ashcroft. I resent the unfair tactics. I resent the distortions of his record. And boy, it's been distorted.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: We're back with Attorney General John Ashcroft. Your thoughts on the Marc Rich pardon? You have to have some thoughts. You can't be without a thought on this.
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, first of all, from a legal perspective, I believe the Constitution accords to the president the right to pardon people, and it's a pretty unfettered right. And, you know, I was a governor and had the right to pardon people within my state and I used it pretty sparingly.
I remember pardoning a couple of women who were incarcerated because they had killed their husbands but they weren't allowed, in their trial, to talk about the fact that they had been seriously abused as spouses. And the legislature, later on, passed a law saying that kind of evidence should go into those cases. But these women had been convicted prior to that change in the law, and I gave them the ability to gain parole after a term of years because I thought the justice of the situation required a change.
So, I think a pardon in my judgment is something that should be reserved for a situation where there is a manifest sense of injustice. I think the American people are -- well, the American people, I think, are troubled whenever they think a pardon would be associated with either political support or financial support.
KING: And you move against him civilly, right, if he came back to this country? Justice Department can bring charges, IRS could bring charges, right? There's nothing that says you can't move?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, I certainly have not looked into the any of those potentials, and if I had, I probably wouldn't be able to comment. But, on those...
KING: Would you say you were surprised?
JOHN ASHCROFT: I was surprised by the pardon. And more -- there are several other pardons that are the subject of inquiry.
KING: Nothing you can do about it, though? You can inquire, then what?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, you know, I do believe the president has a right to pardon people, and I think when you're electing a president you ought to when you -- I guess when you're thinking about the kind of people that a person might pardon and what the basis for the pardon might be, that ought to influence your decision-making.
KING: It's a -- this is a job you relish?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, so far, so good. You know, I've relished it four days now.
KING: It ain't like being a state attorney general.
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, you have to...
KING: Are you the attorney for the president or the country?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Yes.
KING: He's back in the Senate. We will take a break and come back. We'll -- yes, I think I get that. We'll take a break and we'll come back, and we'll ask General Ashcroft some of his plans, and then his wife will join us.
This LARRY KING LIVE. Tomorrow night, we look at Marc Rich and the aforementioned Marc Rich. This is CNN. We'll be back right after this. Don't go away.
KING: Before we talk about some of the things you plan to do and we bring on your wife, a couple of things I do want to cover. John Ashcroft and the gay community -- should they be concerned?
JOHN ASHCROFT: I'm going to enforce the law for all Americans. And individuals can expect to have even-handed enforcement regardless of their own personal preferences. It's the law that they have those rights that are to be protected, and I will enforce them.
KING: And your opposition to Ambassador Hormel wasn't because he was gay?
JOHN ASHCROFT: On the whole, his record I think didn't recommend to send him, and that's what I told the committee when they asked me about it.
KING: But you would appoint gays to the Justice Department?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, you know, I have never asked people whether they were gay or not when they came to me.
KING: But if you found out they were, it wouldn't mean they wouldn't be?
JOHN ASHCROFT: I have not -- I have not fired people who were gay who worked for me when I was governor or in other settings, and I wouldn't do it in the Justice Department.
KING: Even though it is against your faith?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, you know, my job in government isn't to impose my faith. It's against my religion to impose my religion. My religion is that faith is...
KING: In other words, it's a sin by imposing your religion?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Absolutely. If God leaves us free to make decisions, who would I be to supersede God and start imposing what he allows us to be free to decide?
KING: You made the announcement the other day -- I don't have it in front of me -- how you're going to balance the needs of the public and the needs of business as well. Does this mean, as some rumor, of going soft in the Microsoft area?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, first of all, I want to be very careful what I say about that. That's a matter that's pending, arguments scheduled for the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals just recently just expanded the arguments to be made.
KING: But the government was against Microsoft and you're now the government. JOHN ASHCROFT: It's -- it's a matter which I am watching carefully and will have under review. And I just don't think it would be prudent for me to make further comment than that on the case.
KING: In other words, there may be a chance the government could change its position? Is that a fair question? There may be a chance where you could change your position on Microsoft?
JOHN ASHCROFT: I'm reviewing the case and it would be imprudent for me to make any remark about it.
KING: War on drugs, any change?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, I want to escalate the war on drugs. I want to renew it. I want to refresh it, relaunch it if you will.
KING: Is it a failure?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, we haven't done what we need to do. When the Clinton administration came in eight years ago, they took the drug czar's office and cut the staffing there from about 140 down to about 25. And frankly, the war on drugs requires leadership, and when the president of the United States says, I maybe didn't inhale but I wish I had, and he says that on MTV, you have to understand it -- drug use began to come back up, substantially. We've had tremendous...
KING: Do you think that affects people, a president making...
JOHN ASHCROFT: Absolutely. I think when it is signaled -- of course, we had a surgeon general of the United States who said, hey, we ought to just legalize all these drugs. When you've got the president saying, I probably wish I had inhaled, and the surgeon general saying these things ought to be made legal, I think that sends the wrong signals.
KING: So you're going to be what? Tough, tougher?
JOHN ASHCROFT: We want to relaunch the war on drugs and we want to bring parents into the equation. You know, it's hard for a government to direct children (UNINTELLIGIBLE) for parents. And if we can help parents be better parents -- and the president sure has an interesting program called the Parent Drug Corps. So he wants parents to be educated and to help them make presentations to their kids, that's a good idea.
But we'll enforce the law with vigor and with intensity. We've got to stop this upswing in drug use. And the statistics are alarming.
Let me just -- I've got some of them on a piece of paper here. The number of high schools seniors who have tried drugs is at its highest level in over a decade. Compared to 1992, daily use of marijuana -- within the previous 30 days, pardon me, increased by 700 percent between '92 and '97.
KING: What do you do, General, though, about demand? I mean, you have to have demand.
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, one of the things you do about demand is that for -- particularly, in young people -- you get their parents involved, and you try to educate children away from demand, and you try to lead children away from demand. That's why I think it's so important to have a president who will speak forcefully against drug use than -- rather than wink and give the nod in some sense like saying, "Well, I didn't inhale but I wish I had." That's just the wrong signal to send.
KING: Do you continue the concept of strong minority hiring?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Obviously...
KING: In Justice and elsewhere where you need it enforced?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Obviously, we want to hire people with regard to their merit and their skill and their capacity, and I don't find any deficit in the community, any community in that respect.
KING: You're meeting with Janet Reno this week, having her over?
JOHN ASHCROFT: I'm very pleased that she would come. She spent eight years as attorney general. There is a lot that I could learn from her.
And some of the things that she did she did very well. When I was governor,, for instance, I focused on violence against women. We literally skyrocketed the funding, and we also started to get involved in helping women who were the subject of violence. She was very good on this.
KING: So what are you going to do, have her come over?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, she's going to come by for lunch tomorrow, I believe it is, at the office, and I'm very pleased. She was very gracious to me. As soon as I was nominated, she called me and invited me to confer with her. I did on the phone. But I thought given the tenderness of the confirmation proceedings, it would be best if I didn't go in the Justice Department and appear to be assuming anything until I was actually confirmed.
So we're going to have the opportunity to spend some time together. It's very kind of her to take the time to come, and to share with me her advice and counsel. And you know, when you can get counsel from an attorney general...
KING: She was a district attorney.
JOHN ASHCROFT: Yes. She's been there. And I'm grateful.
KING: Houston, Texas, let me get a call in for the attorney general, then his wife will join us.
CALLER: Mr. Ashcroft...
JOHN ASHCROFT: Yes.
CALLER: ... you said you had no regrets about Ronnie White, no regrets about Mr. Hormel, no regrets about "Southern Partisan Magazine," and no regrets about accepting a degree from Bob Jones University. My question is, do you have any regrets about anything that you have done, and what are they?
KING: Well, with "Southern Partisan" -- we didn't get to that. I was going to get to that. That was the magazine that has spoken out in favor of white supremacy.
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, if -- you know, I reject racism, and I reject that any magazine that is racist.
KING: You didn't know it was?
JOHN ASHCROFT: I talked to them on the telephone in an interview, and the things that I said were important. I don't regret what I said, but obviously, I don't want to participate in any institution that's racist.
KING: And Bob Jones, any regrets over accepting that?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, I reject the idea that we're intolerant not only in racial matters but in religious matters, and my own view is that we ought to promote tolerance. What I didn't know at the time was that they were as intolerant of my religion, my faith as they were of others that I didn't know about either at the time.
KING: Are you going to return the degree?
JOHN ASHCROFT: I -- I haven't returned it. I offered to return it during the campaign if my opponent would similarly do some things, and neither of us did.
KING: So you don't intend to or...
JOHN ASHCROFT: I don't have any current plans to do that.
KING: We'll meet Mrs. Ashcroft. We'll continue with your phone calls. Don't go away.
KING: The look of this program has immensely improved. Attorney General John Ashcroft, we are now joined by Janet Ashcroft. They were married in 1967. She used to teach business law at Howard University, the famed mostly all-black institution here in Washington. What was this like going through all this for you?
JANET ASHCROFT, WIFE OF JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, it was a lot harder for John, first of all, I'm sure than it was for me.
KING: It was painful? JANET ASHCROFT: No. No. I mean, we understand, I think, what this whole thing was about, and we just knew that we had to do the right thing, and do our best, and trust that we would get through it.
KING: You met in law school, right?
JANET ASHCROFT: Yes, yes.
JOHN ASHCROFT: I met her -- I was there 30 some years ago, but she was there just recently.
KING: And you were both Pentecostal?
JANET ASHCROFT: No.
KING: Did you convert to Pentecostal?
JANET ASHCROFT: Yes.
KING: Was it hard conversion?
JANET ASHCROFT: I don't know.
KING: I mean, was it difficult? Was it -- was it -- did she have to?
JOHN ASHCROFT: You know, I love this woman, and so I'm delighted that we go to church together and we share faith our together and that's not been something that's been hard for us. It's been something that's sustained us.
KING: What I mean is sometimes faith won't intermarry.
JOHN ASHCROFT: Yes, well, this one did.
KING: You are not going to lose her.
JOHN ASHCROFT: No. We made it very -- how many years, 33? I want to make sure I've got that right.
KING: I want to get something clear, Janet, because there's been maybe a misconception. In a TV interview did you say that you were attacked? You were raped? What?
JANET ASHCROFT: I said I was attacked by a rapist.
KING: By a rapist. Didn't say whether you were raped or not?
JANET ASHCROFT: No, and I don't really want to talk about it.
KING: But John was very strong during this?
JANET ASHCROFT: He was phenomenal. He was very, very kind, absolutely perfect in his response. And it was very impressive. KING: Well, let's see an aspect. How did you deal with that?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, I'm -- I don't remember it nearly as vividly as she does and while I would be willing to talk about it, I don't remember it that well. But she says that I was very...
KING: Your first reaction.
JOHN ASHCROFT: My first reaction was that she was hurt, and that I needed to go be with her. I was living quite a ways from her, and I didn't have a car. We were in law school and we rode the subway and the L-train and the Illinois Central. So the variety of things that we rode around Chicago. I guess maybe not subway, it's the L-train.
And I went to be with her, and just wanted to assure her and to let her know that how much I cared. But there is a very little that you can do. This individual was apprehended after assaulting another woman. So it was just a very scary thing.
KING: Requires strength, doesn't it?
JANET ASHCROFT: Well, he did the right thing. He said the right things and he did the right things.
KING: That -- and every man would think about this, you know.
JOHN ASHCROFT: I hope.
JANET ASHCROFT: I don't know that every man would say exactly the right thing, and John did.
KING: Said exactly the right thing?
JANET ASHCROFT: Yes.
KING: What about this mix of faith and politics, as you see it, Janet?
JANET ASHCROFT: I don't...
KING: Is it something that has been difficult for him?
JANET ASHCROFT: Oh, I don't think it has. I don't think it has. You know, so many people in politics do have a faith, and I think we're probably better off because so many do, because they understand that they are accountable for what they do.
I would rather have people in government who worry about what they do and care about the impact of what they do and feel that they are accountable for what they do than someone who doesn't feel he is accountable.
KING: Why do you think so many people react harshly to it? And they did even when Senator Lieberman brought it up, he got a lot of criticism for it. He said the word "God" a lot.
JOHN ASHCROFT: You know, people have an appropriate...
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, reservation about someone who would impose their faith. And faith is something of inspiration, not something of imposition. As I said before, it's against my religion to impose my religion. And I think -- but people are concerned about that, and that's appropriate. I think that's understandable.
People who are concerned about that are not necessarily people who don't have faith themselves. They just have reservations. They don't want someone imposing a different faith on them, and neither do I. So we share the idea that faith is not something to be imposed.
The law is to be imposed. It's something to be enforced, and that's what I'll focus on as attorney general, but it won't force me to abandon what I believe in, and of course, what Janet says, my ultimate accountability being to all-seeing God is -- makes your sober -- your behavior sober.
KING: What do you both think of the faith-based initiative program of President Bush, which is being widely discussed in many religious circles?
JOHN ASHCROFT: If I can take that one, I was the sponsor of the legislation that really sort of opened the door for that at the federal level in the Welfare Reform enactments of the mid-90s. And what we wanted to do was to get the real kind of caring compassion that really remediates the pathologies of social culture that we have, ad get them into contact with the people who are needy because we found that those are the places where things really work.
And we had some walls between these caring, compassionate institutions in our culture that said the government won't allow some of these institutions to really help solve these problems, and we had to draw a pretty tender matrix of regulations and all to make sure that we didn't provide for imposition of faith on individuals, to make sure that we didn't fund anybody's faith with government dollars, but we didn't discriminate against faith-based organizations.
KING: So a thin line?
JOHN ASHCROFT: It's an important line, and it's a line that ought to be carefully drawn. But it's a line that if you don't draw it and you just eliminate the faith-based community from their participation in helping solve these problems and healing the hurts of the culture, you're losing a lot of the healing that you could otherwise have.
KING: We'll be right back with the Ashcrofts. We'll include some more phone calls. Don't go away.
KING: You may wonder, what do we do during breaks? Pictures of children, grandchildren and babies is what we do. Let's take a call, Jenison, Michigan. Hello.
KING: Hi, go ahead.
CALLER: Yes, Attorney General Ashcroft, my question is how might you have handled the Waco and Elian Gonzalez situation?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, those are very tough situations. Those are some of the things I might talk to Attorney General Reno about tomorrow.
KING: She there in Waco.
JOHN ASHCROFT: You know, and I'm not -- you know, those are tough situations. I don't know all the facts of the Elian Gonzales case. That's a tough case. But I will ask her for advice to see if having been through it, she has recommendations because I know that those were very difficult circumstances, and obviously, when as much human trauma and death is involved as you had at Waco, you've just got to -- you know, I've said to folks in the department, identify those things that might have those components, and let's try and plan and anticipate because we want to avoid that.
KING: Are you going to keep Louis Freeh?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, he's appointed by the president. He's an individual that I've called to meet with. He is to stay. I mean, he's got a term of years.
KING: ... does he got a chance to stay.
JOHN ASHCROFT: He's left. He was, though, he was obviously, the interim, and I think it was real stroke for the president of the United States. He became the first black attorney general of the United States at President Bush's motion, and served as the interim attorney general after Janet Reno.
KING: Would you want him to come back? Would you be interested in him?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, I've talked to him to ask for his advice and help, and he's pointed toward other things.
KING: How do you feel about all this, this new post? How is it going to affect you?
JANET ASHCROFT: Well, I think the jury is still out on that right now...
JANET ASHCROFT: ... because John's only been there four days. And I was in Missouri most of those four days.
KING: What do you want to do? Do you want to continue?
JANET ASHCROFT: I don't know. I really want to see how this job works and what John's time commitment is. I really love teaching. I really love teaching. I love working with the students, and...
KING: Would you mind if she went full-time (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, she taught full-time the last five years, and resigned when I lost the election last fall thinking we were going back to do other things in Missouri. So I encouraged her to teach. You know, she's taught on and off. She's authored several books in the textbook field for business law. So she's a professional in the educational arena and...
KING: Do you want to go back? Why can't a Mrs. Attorney General teach?
JANET ASHCROFT: Quite frankly, I was told initially -- well, during all of this transition, when we were filling out all the forms, that I could not write, that I couldn't continue to write the textbook. And I got -- I got kind of irate.
KING: Why? What, do you belong to him?
JANET ASHCROFT: Well, they've very careful about...
JOHN ASHCROFT: I didn't tell her that.
JANET ASHCROFT: No, no, no. The Office of Government Ethics, and see John is now in an executive branch job instead of a legislative branch job, and the rules are applied a little differently in the executive branch. But I did -- I did give someone my 2 cents worth on the subject, and I think -- I haven't heard anything about it yet -- but I think that maybe the decision has changed.
KING: So you can't write, but you can teach?
JANET ASHCROFT: No, no, no. No, I can write. I've got that taken care of.
KING: Oh, you can?
JANET ASHCROFT: Yes, yes.
KING: So you...
JOHN ASHCROFT: She doesn't know whether she can teach yet.
JANET ASHCROFT: But I suspect I can teach.
JOHN ASHCROFT: I think there are other folks similarly situated who are teaching or doing other things. JANET ASHCROFT: Right.
JOHN ASHCROFT: I tell you, the loss would be to students in the classroom. She's a good teacher. They love her. She calls them, talks with them. We've spent a lot of -- a lot of pleasant moments.
KING: Would you go back to Howard?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, it depends on whether Howard wants me back.
KING: I think they might be inclined to.
We'll be back with some more moments with the Ashcrofts. Don't go away.
KING: Before we take another quick call, are you going to continue the forceful area with litigation with the tobacco companies?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, that's something that I'm looking into. I'm just in my fourth day in the office, and I -- I have to confer with the litigants on that to see how that's going. And I'll...
KING: Do you favor an aggressive government with regard to tobacco?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, everybody knows I'm not a smoker. And we abolished smoking in the governor's mansion in Missouri so that I don't have any special favors for tobacco companies. But I haven't made a decision about the litigation.
KING: Alexandria, Virginia, hello.
CALLER: Hello. Mr. Attorney General, I'm wondering why did you decide not to contest your Senate race.
KING: Yes. You lost to a man who tragically died. You had a -- you had a case apparently about a question whether someone deceased could be on a ballot.
JOHN ASHCROFT: I -- well, the Constitution, I think, requires that a person be a resident of the state from which they're elected, and there is a question about whether a deceased person could be a resident.
But I spent my life working to represent people, and to put their will into place in government, and I think the will of the people was expressed that they wanted to honor the deceased governor, who was seeking the seat in the Senate, and that they voted clearly in that direction. And for me to seek to set that aside would be to displace the will of the people, which I had spent my life trying to put in place. And I didn't want to do that. I felt like the will of the people should be respected in that way and made the decision that it would be inappropriate for me to contest the election.
KING: Did you agree with that decision?
JANET ASHCROFT: Yes.
KING: You did. Because you must have given the thought to you got a shot here. You're a lawyer.
JANET ASHCROFT: Certainly. But John -- John is a person who believes very strongly in some principles, and he was just carrying out those principles. And I have to support that.
I think it was a very difficult situation. But I think it's in difficult situations that character really shows up.
KING: Do you think -- John, we only have about a minute left -- that you -- yours will be a vigorous attorney generalship?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Yes, I want to do some things that are very important/
JOHN ASHCROFT: That's right. Stop gun violence. I want to reinvigorate the war against drugs. I want to end discrimination wherever I find it. If it's in voting rights, in housing -- violence against women is something that is -- that we can focus on that's similar to what Janet Reno focused on.
These fundamental things are the kinds of protections of persons, their rights and their property that individual citizens have a right to expect of government, and I want to make the Justice Department a place where they get it.
KING: And you're going to let the press take pictures of you and Ms. Reno tomorrow? It would be a nice scene.
JOHN ASHCROFT: OK.
KING: Let them in, OK?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Thank you.
KING: Thanks, General.
JOHN ASHCROFT: My pleasure.
KING: I hope there will be many visits.
JOHN ASHCROFT: Thank you. It'll be my pleasure.
KING: Continued good luck. Teach, write!
JANET ASHCROFT: Yes, thank you.
KING: Our guests have been Attorney General John Ashcroft, the 79th attorney general of the United States, and his wife, Janet.
Next Wednesday, by the way, the secret longtime companion of the late Charles Kuralt, Pat Shannon. And we want to hear from you. Check out my Web site -- still don't know how it works, but I know it's there -- cnn.com/larryking. Do you use the Web site?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Yeah.
KING: You do? Well, you're better than me.
OK. It's a great Web site. We hope you enjoy it.
Stay tuned for my man Bill Hemmer and "CNN TONIGHT." We'll see you tomorrow night to talk about the Marc Rich matter. I'm Larry King. For the Ashcrofts in Washington, good night.
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