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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 November, 2004, 04:57 GMT
Profile: John Ashcroft
John Ashcroft
John Ashcroft - a controversial figure
All those who have met John Ashcroft know him to be strongly conservative and deeply religious.

During his time as America's top law officer, those controversial characteristics were there for the whole nation to see.

When he was nominated by President George W Bush, Democrats objected that a man with such firmly-held beliefs - he is pro-death penalty, anti-abortion, anti-gay rights, and opposed to gun control - was unsuitable to be the country's "sheriff".

He is not the person who should be entrusted with the significant responsibilities of the attorney-general
Judith Schaefer, civil rights activist

Women's rights advocates and black groups also raised objections, based on Mr Ashcroft's opposition to abortion and school desegregation in his home state of Missouri.

He angered Democrats in 1999 by accepting an honorary degree from South Carolina's Bob Jones University, which had only just banned interracial dating.

Racism claims

The former senator once famously boasted of his conservatism, saying there are two things you find in the middle of the road: "a moderate and a dead skunk", adding he did not want to be either.

"John Ashcroft is an extremist; he has a record of insensitivity, if not outright hostility towards women and minorities," is the way civil rights activist Judith Schaefer has described him.

But Mr Ashcroft has denied he is a racist. In one of his first public statements after his nomination, he said he opposed the police practice of targeting members of racial minorities for questioning.

"It's wrong, it's inappropriate, it shouldn't be done," he said.

And Republican Senator Orrin Hatch has strongly dismissed the charges of racism and sexism against his former colleague.

"I don't think anybody in their right mind who knows John Ashcroft would say that he's biased in any way shape or form, " he said. "John is a very fine man."

Uncompromising

While serving with Mr Bush, the attorney general showed the same uncompromising black-and-white view of the world for which the administration is renowned.

Leading the fight against terrorism after September 11, 2001, he drew up the Patriot Act - sweeping legislation which critics say undermines America's proud history of individual rights.

A man of great integrity, a man of great judgment and a man who knows the law
George W Bush

It gave the FBI and other agencies powers to tap phones, access private medical and library records, track internet usage and detain immigrants.

Defending the act in 2003, he said: "We have used these tools to prevent terrorists from unleashing more death and destruction on our soil."

On the day Mr Bush accepted his resignation, Mr Ashcroft wrote in a five-page handwritten letter to the president that "the objective of securing the safety of Americans from crime and terror has been achieved".

Liberal critics offered a different view.

"His tenure was marked by a severe erosion of Americans' constitutional liberties," said Ralph Neas of People for the American Way, a liberal lobbying group.

Gay campaigners were outraged when in 2003 he banned his department's annual gay pride event.

"It's shameful that the federal agency that is in charge of protecting civil rights in this country is singling out one group for disparate treatment," said David Smith of the gay rights organisation Human Rights Campaign.

Some US newspapers have also claimed that Mr Ashcroft tried to encourage use of the death penalty in states such as New York and Connecticut which are reluctant to impose the ultimate punishment.

The attorney general has the final say on whether the death penalty should be used in federal cases.

Many people think his hardline approach was closely linked to his religious upbringing.

Childhood in the church

Born 9 May 1942, in Chicago, Mr Ashcroft grew up in Springfield, Missouri, where his family had moved to be nearer to the world headquarters of the Assembly of God Church.

His father was a minister in the church, and a dominant influence on the young John Ashcroft, who attended Hillcrest High School in Springfield.

In his book, Lessons from a Father to his Son, Mr Ashcroft said he woke up every morning hearing "the magisterial wake-up call" of his father's prayers.

Before entering politics, the former senator taught business law at Southwest Missouri State University. He graduated with honours from Yale University in 1964, and earned a law degree from the University of Chicago in 1967.

Since then he has held a number of political posts.

He was Missouri's state auditor from 1973-75, and then became the state's assistant attorney-general in 1975. The following year he moved up to the attorney-general job, where he stayed until 1985.

During that time he was president of the National Association of Attorneys-General, and received the organisation's top award in 1983.

Political ladder

Then in 1984 he was elected governor of Missouri, and won a second term in 1988. He served as chairman of the Republican Governors' Association in 1989-90, and chairman of the National Governors' Association in 1991 and 1992.

John cannot see a person in need without trying to reach out and help
Janet Ashcroft
Mr Ashcroft took up a seat in the Senate in 1995, and briefly considered running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, with backing from religious conservatives.

In the end he ran for Senate re-election, but lost his seat to a dead man: Mel Carnahan, whose widow Jean stepped in as the Democrat candidate when her husband died after the ballot papers had already been printed.

But that meant the way was clear for him to become George W Bush's nominee for attorney general.

When he lost the Senate seat, colleagues from both parties said he handled the situation graciously, and praised him for being an ethical, fair-minded lawmaker.

John Ashcroft's wife, Janet, has described her husband, a non-smoker and non-drinker, as "a man of integrity and decency and honesty, and compassion".

"He is reasoned and flexible and, you know, everybody likes John Ashcroft," she has said.

The couple have three children and one grandchild.

In March 2004, Mr Ashcroft had his gallbladder removed by doctors who earlier diagnosed him as suffering severe gallstone pancreatitis.




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