It turns out that John Ashcroft ’64 has game. At least, that is what Stephen Pfeiffer, a second-year law student at Virginia’s Regent University, where Ashcroft currently teaches, said. Alongside Pfeiffer and his roommate, Ashcroft, who was teaching a Regent course in Strasbourg, France, recently trounced the opposition, 7-0, in a three-on-three pickup game. Though he “wasn’t very agile,” the former Branford College intramural basketball captain “knows how to shoot the J’s,” Pfeiffer said.
“John Ashcroft knows how to dish it out,” Pfeiffer said. “He’s an old-lawyer John Stockton.”
It has been a little more than a year since former Attorney General Ashcroft’s much-hashed-over parting line about achieving the objective of “securing the safety of Americans from crime and terror” was delivered in a handwritten letter to President George W. Bush ’68. Since his resignation, Ashcroft has dropped out of the political limelight in favor of a career atypical for a former attorney general, opening a lobbying firm and joining the Center for Law and Justice at Regent, a little-known school founded by evangelical leader and former presidential contender Pat Robertson LAW ’55.
But classmates, acquaintances and friends of Ashcroft’s, both from his Yale days and from later in his career, said his every action — before, during and after his time as one of the most maligned figures in the Bush administration — could have been expected of the ferociously principled man they know.
Regent Law School Dean Jeffrey Brauch said Ashcroft joined the Regent faculty despite being heavily recruited by other universities. Brauch, who taught a course on human rights and civil liberties in times of war alongside Ashcroft in Strasbourg, described teaching with Ashcroft as “both great fun and scary.” He cited now-textbook cases such as the Yaser Hamdi and Jose Padilla trials as particularly intimidating to teach alongside the man who shaped U.S. national security precedent.
The commitment to a values-driven government that made Ashcroft so controversial as the nation’s top law enforcer was already obvious during his undergraduate career, said Ward Wickwire ’64, a classmate of Ashcroft’s and a fellow member of the secret society St. Elmo’s. Wickwire remembers seemingly endless rounds of “very respectful and very interesting” verbal jousting as the more liberal members of the secret society pounced on Ashcroft’s conservative social and political leanings.
“His religious underpinnings and personal convictions made him the very conservative member of our society,” Wickwire said.
During his undergraduate years, Ashcroft counted himself among the steadily dwindling number of Yale Republicans — a yearbook photo of the group from 1964 shows only five suited and grinning undergraduates, a marked contrast to the rows of cheering Yale Democrats on the facing page.
Particularly after an injured knee from his freshman year of college precluded him from continuing on the football team, Ashcroft immersed himself into Yale organizations relating to politics. He joined the Yale Republicans and was active on the Senior Advisory Committee alongside classmate and fellow politico Joe Lieberman ’64, in addition to serving on the Branford College Council as athletic aide, treasurer and secretary in various years.
Wickwire said the only thing that surprised him about Ashcroft’s career was that it came to fruition on a national stage. Remembering his friend as “obsessed” with Missouri state politics, Wickwire said Ashcroft’s stints as state attorney general between 1976 and 1985, governor between 1985 and 1993 and U.S. senator from Missouri between 1995 and 2000 were unsurprising given his political bent and dedication.
Mindful of the values instilled in him during his all-American childhood — he was an Eagle Scout, a quarterback and a choirboy — Ashcroft returned weekly as an adult to Springfield, Mo., where he grew up. Ashcroft sought to infuse his Yale experience with the same old-fashioned moderation with which he grew up, Wickwire said.
But Jenny Stewart, a second-year law student at Regent, said Ashcroft is more than just a man of principle. Students of Ashcroft’s are as apt to remember his jokes and impromptu Dixie concerts as they are his religious values, Stewart said. Not only does she know his stances on habeas corpus during wartime emergencies, but she also knows that Ashcroft loves “The Princess Bride” — his daughter’s favorite movie — and that he rides dirtbikes on his ranch in Virginia for fun.
“He loves the Lord, and showed me that it is possible for someone in a high place to work with an integrity and honesty they won’t give up for any amount of prestige,” Stewart said. “But at the same time, he’s real, funny, easy to talk to and down to earth. It’s like he never was attorney general.”