John Ashcroft stands at the podium of a national news conference, his face flushed with anger at the question regarding Bob Jones University, and, wagging his finger at the camera, he explodes:
"I did not have relations with that institution."
Ah, but he did.
Last May, Missouri's junior senator didn't merely "visit" Bob Jones University in South Carolina; he served as its proud commencement speaker. For his trouble, he received an honorary degree, which -- in the face of loud criticism from Gov. Mel Carnahan, his senatorial opponent -- he says he has no plans to return.
At a cursory glance, this would seem to be just one of those passing political- correctness stories: A guy gives a speech at a college that bans interracial dating and that is said to have had an anti-Catholic bias in its past but is also a place that Ronald Reagan, the George Bushes and others have visited without similar outcries.
Well, make that one George Bush. The W. is currently groveling at the feet of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York -- condemning his own visit to Bob Jones -- what with the more moderate states of Super Tuesday (including Missouri) looming and the lassoing of the most fanatical wing of the nation's most conservative state comfortably a couple of weeks behind.
But is this Bob Jones flap really a big deal?
Actually, yes. On a couple of counts.
First is that Bob Jones University, to this very day, is virulently opposed to Catholicism and virtually any other faith -- Christian or otherwise -- that doesn't meet its rigid fundamentalist standards. The current president, Bob Jones, not just his founder dad, continues to preach bigotry, branding Catholicism a "false religion" and maintaining official, segregationist dating policies. More on this shortly.
The second count, perhaps just as serious, is Ashcroft's unbelievably Clintonian response to the Bob Jones Thing. Ashcroft's official position, uttered not by him but by spokesman Steve Hilton, went like this:
"In this instance, Senator Ashcroft accepted an opportunity to speak to the student body, and did not then, and does not now, have knowledge of their specific teachings. He totally repudiates attacks on religious denominations or beliefs and completely embraces the American heritage of the equality of all people and religious and racial diversity and tolerance."
Interesting. Ashcroft the campaigner is highly skilled at distancing himself from the racially challenged, Bible-thumping right-wing extremist who takes over his body in nonelection years, but he certainly had no problem serving as honored commencement speaker for those whose core philosophy he "totally repudiates."
And how about that explanation? He did not then, and does not now, have knowledge of their specific teachings.
There are four possibilities here: (1) Hilton, and therefore Ashcroft, has just tied Clinton for first in the national lying competition. (2) Ashcroft is being "a lawyer not a leader" -- to borrow his favorite phrase about the president -- with that hair-splitting "specific teachings" reference. (3) Ashcroft never has, nor does, read the news. Or (4) Ashcroft suffers from the worst advance-staff work in political history.
I'm not buying No. 3 or 4. But for those who know a little less about Bob Jones University than its proud honorary grad, it might be fruitful to take a little e-trip to a place known as www.bju.edu, the official Web site of the self-proclaimed "most unusual university in the world."
There, under the heading "The Truth About Bob Jones University," is a lengthy defense against "the sudden hatred and bigotry the University is subjected to by the media and the political "three tenors,' McCain, Gore, and Bradley, who sing the same off-pitch tune of the liberal left."
In the interest of fairness, I suggest you visit the site and read for yourself about this place with which Sen. Ashcroft has such a comfortable affinity. In the meantime, allow me to hum some of my favorite present-day excerpts, right off the Web site, from Bob Jones himself:
"If there are those who wish to charge us with being anti-Catholicism, we plead guilty. But we are not Catholic-haters. The Christian, scriptural mandate is to present Christ to the world and plead with all men everywhere to look to the Lamb of God, repent of their sins, and trust Him as their sin substitute and His righteousness to give them standing in the sight of God which they cannot have any other way.
"All religion, including Catholicism, which teaches that salvation is by religious works or church dogma is false. Religion that makes the words of its leader, be he Pope or other, equal with the Word of God is false.
"...We love the practicing Catholic and earnestly desire to see him accept the Christ of the Cross, leave the false system that has enslaved his soul, and enjoy the freedom of sins forgiven that is available for any of us in Christ alone."
Wonder whether those words are on Ashcroft's parchment.
As for race relations, at least you can't accuse Bob Jones of political correctness, although, like all segregationists through history, he revolts at being labeled racist:
"Students of all races attend here and live in racial harmony and respect for one another as Christians. If there is discrimination in the policy, which race is discriminated against? Black, white, or yellow? Each person dates within his own race. For there to be discrimination, one race would have to be treated differently than the other."
Sound a little out of place in the year 2000? Yes it is, and proudly so: "The shameful departure from the Scripture by that which calls itself the church so that it might mirror unregenerate society has become profound in the last 40 years. The University exists as a valued training place for Christians who are conformed to Christ and His Word, who refuse to be conformed to the world. The University's refusal to compromise and contemporize makes it the object of ridicule and hatred by those on the other side of the Cross."
Not by me. I don't hate these people.
I just wonder why John Ashcroft likes them so much.