August 28-September 3, 2003
The little Secret Service agent at the National Constitution Center seems more interested in John Ashcroftís tight USA Patriot Act spin-tour schedule than any constitutional rights when he stops me from following a flock of television reporters heading for a brief presser with the man who could not even beat a corpse.
"You can't go in here," says the little Secret Service agent, who was very nice to me the last time we met, inside Cuba Libre, when we were both awaiting a visit from that revered cigar aficionado Bill Clinton.
As the flock disappears down a hall in a hurried scurry, the bespectacled woman in the black dress who could have been Ainsley, the perky Republican from The West Wing, looks at me and waxes apologetic.
"I am sorry," she says as the last of the camera crews whiz by. "But he is not talking to print. Only talking to television."
Pens may no longer be as mighty as the camera, but apparently they make Ashcroft and his guardians squeamish.
I protest and try to follow TV.
This time around the little Secret Service agent is not so fun. He orders me escorted away from the scene.
And this in the only museum dedicated to our national principles. In the city where an irascible weekly newspaper editor helped create a nation with his press.
Walking out of the NCC, I steam.
And quickly realize that, more than anything he said in his brief speech to hundreds of law-enforcement personnel -- police chiefs, DAs, AGs, brass-and-line cops, most duded up in their Good Humor man finery -- Ashcroft's print ban speaks volumes as he tries to get the country to swallow his load of bile.
It is very instructive to watch Ainsley and her crew try to redecorate the National Constitution Center podium that Ashcroft will use in about an hour.
The center's logo, Velcroed to the podium, is in the way of the AG's message. So they peel it off and try for about a half hour to come up with a suitable way of maximizing the impact of the blue placard emblazoned with the URL for the Patriot Act website -- www.lifeandliberty.gov.
Some put the placard atop the podium. But that would block Ashcroft.
Others try working with the center's logo, eventually abandoning it in favor of the placard.
That momentous decision made, I stroll out into the museum to find a law enforcement-type's opinion.
Any discussion of the Patriot Act, "is overshadowed, frankly, by the two events that happened yesterday," says District Attorney Lynne Abraham, referring to the truck bomb that exploded outside the U.N. compound in Baghdad and the bus bomb in Jerusalem. "I think many, many Americans look at those images -- and visitors too -- and they are saying, ĺWe are frightened, we'd better do something about terrorism, we don't want to have our children on those buses.' So I think a bombing like that has a negative impact on most people who might not agree with or like the Patriot Act. It plays into the opposite hands. I think these two bombings are going to have a great benefit to those people who think the Patriot Act is good."
Abraham is quick to point out that she is taking no position, either way, on the Patriot Act.
A few minutes later, Ashcroft has plenty to say about his position. He argues that, given the status quo, the government needs to employ the same kinds of law enforcement techniques against terrorists that it uses against mobsters.
He downplays concerns about diminished liberties by pointing out that law enforcement has checked up on people's library habits and business records before and that the people should trust our government to do the right thing.
Tell that to the little Secret Service agent and the other folks who didn't want the attorney general bothered by a print reporter.
To be honest, when he ordered me off the premises, I was not just steamed, I was flabbergasted.
Surely, these people understand irony? Perhaps they just don't care.
When I get back to my office, I reach out to some journalists I respect to see if they share my sense of outrage or can offer any advice about what to do.
"I think it sucks, but if he wants to talk to TV, there's not much we can do," Nick Fox, a New York Times national editor, responds via e-mail. "The president does that; I can't recall the AG doing it."
Jim Naughton, president of the venerable Poynter Institute, says he is also not amused.
"I'm not sure Poynter has (or should have) a policy on attorneys general acting more like generals than attorneys," he writes. "But I can't imagine anyone here thinking an employee of the public's should be barring any journalist from a press conference. If it had been an interview conducted by one of the networks you might legitimately have been excluded. But if it's a press conference that would seem to be open to the press. Duh."
I will probably never know if anyone at the Justice Department thinks it wrong to bar a journalist from talking to the AG at the National Constitution Center, because my requests for comment went unanswered.
The Patriot Act allows the feds to listen into calls.
It doesn't say anything about returning them.