From San Diego City Beat.com :
I really must remember to shave before approaching ultra-conservative former U.S. attorneys general in religious bookstores. It’s likely that my second-day stubble played a role in getting me removed from the Family Christian Store on Sports Arena Boulevard last Thursday night. That’s right—John Ashcroft gave me the boot during his local book-signing appearance. Friends say I should wear it like a badge of honor. I just feel disrespected. Yes, they counter, but I was disrespected by the right kind of person. Maybe so.
It was partly my fault; I hadn’t read the press release carefully. I noted the time and location, assuming, wrongly, that Ashcroft would be discussing his book, Never Again: Securing America and Restoring Justice, before a gathered throng. Nope. He was just going to sit at a desk and sign books assembly-line style. Reporters interested in talking to Ashcroft were required to sign up in advance, an opportunity seized only by KUSI and the Union-Tribune.
When I arrived, Ashcroft was being interviewed by KUSI behind a large man with folded arms and wearing sunglasses, whose job it was to keep people who look like me away from the former AG. One of Ashcroft’s handlers emerged and asked me what I wanted. I flashed my credentials and said I wouldn’t mind shootin’ a couple questions at the man. She asked me who I was with. “San Diego CityBeat,” I told her. She asked me what sort of paper is that. “Alternative weekly,” I said. “I think we’re going to pass,” she said, smiling smarmily. “But thank you.”
This woman—I didn’t catch her name, so I’ll call her Miss Smarmy Pants—said “thank you” every time I said something to her. I asked her why, and she said she appreciated my interest. Boy, what a crock o’ crap that sentiment turned out to be. Unless she has a really unpleasant way of showing appreciation. In retrospect, I’m pretty certain “Thank you” meant “Please leave.”
Just to spite her, and figuring it was my only chance to get a story, I hung around. I leaned up against a pillar about 10 feet away from where Ashcroft was stationed. My new plan was to listen in to how he interacted with an adoring public. That was a bad plan. He talked about baseball with a few of them, posed for photos and said things like, “What a good deal,” when no deals were proposed. Wholly non-newsworthy.
Ashcroft’s appearance was scheduled for two hours, from 6 to 8 p.m. I’d say about 40 people went through the line by 6:40, but it was a minor trickle after that. When there were no more people with books in hand, Miss Smarmy Pants would push a stack of books his way to sign, with names of recipients written on Post-Its. That’s when I spoke up. I asked if it was a good time to ask a couple of questions. “No,” said Miss Smarmy Pants, “but thank you.”
Ashcroft looked up and asked what sort of questions I had. Thinking the dude might actually be cool enough to overrule his handler, I said I was interested in getting his thoughts on the recent national intelligence estimate that said the war in Iraq is creating more terrorists, and the new book by David Kuo claiming the Bush administration considers evangelical Christians “nuts.” I had other questions, about such things as torture and habeas corpus rights, but those were the two I mentioned. He was dismissive, saying he was out of the loop. He said he hadn’t read the NIE. But he must’ve read news reports about it, I offered. He said he had but then looked away. He didn’t want to talk to me.
A few minutes later, the big guy with the sunglasses approached me and quietly informed me that “management”—Miss Smarmy Pants—wanted me gone. The large man, a locally based federal agent moonlighting for Ashcroft, apologized, saying he didn’t think I was doing anything wrong and telling me that he’s, in fact, a CityBeat reader. I thought for a moment about how to protest without making a scene, but couldn’t come up with anything, and I knew hanging around wasn’t going to do me any good, anyhow. I tried to shoot Miss Smarmy Pants a murderous look, but she wasn’t even brave enough to make eye contact.
My Ashcroft experience was a polar opposite of my encounter with Bill Clinton back in June. That day, looking even more slovenly—I hadn’t expected to actually talk to the man—I approached him with a complex three-part policy question, and he stood there, genuinely engaging me in conversation until I was satisfied.
In a New York Times Magazine interview published on Sunday, Ashcroft closed by saying, “I just hope that in meeting people, they’ll understand that I’m not as bad as they thought I was.”
Meeting him might have been nice. Too bad it requires advance approval. —David Rolland