A quiet Ashcroft turned to books and faith at Yale
Yale Daily News, January 15 - 19, 2001
by James Collins
YDN Staff Reporter
One weekend in the fall of 1960, John Conrad '64 and two of his roommates found their friend Tim Bachmeyer a blind date.
Conrad, Bachmeyer, Greg Tselikis, and a young man from Springfield, MO, John David Ashcroft, all lived together that year in room 46 on the fourth floor of Vanderbilt Hall, which has traditionally housed freshmen on Yale's Old Campus.
Yale had not yet opened its doors to women, and this was the only way to meet coveted members of the opposite sex ― someone had to "import" them from outside New Haven.
Bachmeyer's date arrived at about 7 on Saturday night, Conrad recalls, and when the four roommates had shown her into the room she proceeded to lay down on the boys' couch, kick off her shoes and light herself a cigarette.
That was the liberal Northeast of the 1960s, but nothing could have been more appalling to John Ashcroft, the controversial former Missouri senator who will stand for confirmation hearings before the Senate this week as the designee of President-elect George W. Bush '68 for attorney general.
"John was just scandalized. To him, it was just unthinkable," Conrad remembers. "John didn't do any of that 'bad' stuff ― he didn't smoke cigarettes, he didn't drink, he didn't kick off his shoes and throw himself on the couch ― and neither did the women he associated with back in Missouri."
Throughout his four years in New Haven, Ashcroft, the non-smoking, alcohol-fearing son of a Pentecostal minister and himself a member of the religiously conservative Assemblies of God church, impressed classmates with this social conservatism.
Ashcroft, who classmates say was as politically conservative as he was socially, felt out of place at an increasingly liberal Yale which produced students like Joseph Lieberman, the future senator and vice-presidential candidate who graduated in 1964 with Ashcroft.
Ashcroft's conservative political views, such as his strong opposition to abortion rights, needle-exchange programs for drug addicts, and affirmative action, have caused some liberal groups and Democratic senators to suggest he is too conservative for the country's top law enforcement post.
According to many of those who knew him during his college years, Ashcroft's conservatism was already apparent in the early 1960s and led him to privately express opinions some classmates believed were radically conservative ― including an apparent discomfort with racial integration and a strong opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment.
Unlike many of his classmates at Yale during the activist 1960s, Ashcroft did not express much interest in politics or political activism, choosing instead to focus on his religion.
While Lieberman drove to Mississippi to register black voters and Ashcroft's roommate and longtime friend Jerry Barr '64 became president of the Conservative Party of the Yale Political Union, Ashcroft remained politically uninvolved.
"We'd talk about life, religion, and the mystery of our upbringings," Bachmeyer said. "Did we talk about politics? Never."
Ashcroft, Barr, and Bachmeyer were all political-science majors at the time, Bachmeyer recalls, but their discussions were "mostly focused on whatever the subject matter was."
"When a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter called and asked me that question last year ― when did the political fire get lit under him? ― I told him, 'I don't know,' " Bachmeyer said. "I really don't know where he developed his interest in politics."
Bachmeyer said he would have expected Barr, now a circuit-court judge in Indiana, not Ashcroft, to have become a senator.
"I kept trying to get him involved, and it wasn't that he wasn't interested," Barr said. "He just preferred other things, like religion, to politics of that kind."
David Wyles. who roomed with Lieberman his senior year and knew Ashcroft through friends in the YPU, said Lieberman was far more active on campus than Ashcroft.
"Ashcroft was a straight arrow and a grind," Wyles said. "He was certainly not a star on campus like Joe Lieberman."
"I would have thought John would have gone back to Missouri to become a corporate lawyer for TWA or head of a church camp," Wyles said. "I predicted Joe would be the first Jewish president of the United States."
Many of his classmates speculate Ashcroft's political conservatism grew out of his deeply seated religious beliefs.
Bachmeyer, who was for a time an ordained Methodist minister, agreed.
"I can't imagine where else he could have got it from," he said. "His religion was a part of him."
Many of those who oppose Ashcroft's nomination for attorney general have said they are worried he might try to impose his religious beliefs on his role as law enforcer.
Lieberman is also very religious, but those who knew both men said Ashcroft let his religion dictate his life and interactions with others to a higher degree than Lieberman.
"Ashcroft was a self-righteous prig," Wyles said. "He probably still is, even if he's amiable. Joe was religious too, but Ashcroft was crazy about it."
Views on race and gender
But while Ashcroft remained politically inactive, he still maintained strong beliefs about what he thought was right and wrong politically, roommates and classmates said.
"He was as conservative and stiff then as he is on TV now," said Bill Dale '64, who lived next door to Ashcroft in Vanderbilt during their freshman year. "There's nothing real positive in the way of memories with respect to John Ashcroft."
Conrad said Ashcroft was extremely conservative, even if he did not express such feelings politically.
"He wasn't active politically, but he opinions [sic], certainly," Conrad said. "I didn't talk much politics with him, but some of what he thought was pretty radical, even for a kid like me whose parents were Nixon Republicans."
Conrad recalls one conversation the two had about the Equal Rights Amendment, which would guarantee gender equality but had gone unratified since its proposal in 1923.
Ashcroft thought the amendment was "at best unnecessary," Conrad said.
Apparently, Ashcroft feared the amendment because it might require men to share bathrooms with women.
"He carried the implication of the amendment to an absurd degree," Conrad said.
Ashcroft had similar beliefs at the time about racial equality, Conrad suggested.
"He lived his life based on his beliefs. If that's the way his world was, growing up in Missouri, where both your grandfather and your father were ministers in the Assemblies of God church, you tend to look at the world a certain way."
"It was like this," Conrad said. "There was this girl in one of my classes when I was here in the architecture school. She wouldn't use the same bathrooms that black people used because she thought they put greasy stuff in their hair, and she thought that their hair ended up in the sink and in the toilet. It was like that with John."
A spokesman who was handling questions about Ashcroft for the Bush transition team did not return several phone calls in the past few days seeking comment.
Out of place
Like Vice President-elect Dick Cheney, Ashcroft and his friends Jerry Barr and Tim Bachmeyer came to Yale from public schools in the conservative Midwest.
Yale was still very much dominated by prep-school culture in the early 1960s, and, Bachmeyer said, the trio sometimes struggled to keep up academicàlly and socially.
"It was an enormous adjustment for us," Bachmeyer said. "A lot of these prep-school kids were taking classes they'd taken their senior year in high school, and we were struggling to get C's. John was very smart and very competitive athletically, but even there he struggled a bit. Yale's football team was better than John was back then."
Ashcroft planned to play intercollegiate football at Yale but quit after freshman year to play intramurals for Branford instead.
"He was used to success," said Bill Dale, who lived next door to Ashcroft his freshman year. "He went out for freshman football and was surprised to find there were 20 other quarterbacks that were out there."
Ashcroft also played intramural baseball and basketball, but he did not do many of the same things for fun as his classmates did.
While other students "did as kids did back then," Conrad remembers, Ashcroft worked towards his honors degree in History, helped run the Branford College Master's Office, or worked on campus to pay for his education.
"Do you drink? Do you go out to bars with your friends? Do you dance?" Conrad said. "Do you smoke or hang out with women? Because he did none of that, John didn't do what the rest of us did."
"I don't think he knew George W. Bush," Conrad said, since the President-elect entered Yale when Ashcroft was a senior. "But I can tell you this: John would not have approved of Dubya or anything he did when he was here. He wouldn't have had any patience with the kind of person Bush was when he was here. John hated everything that Bush liked ― parties, drinking, you name it."
Ashcroft, to this day, does not drink, smoke, or dance, and ran an alcohol-free governor's mansion when he was governor of Missouri.
Ashcroft's religion prohibits dancing because it is sexually suggestive, and classmates recall Ashcroft abhorred it even as a student.
"I remember going to a mixer and they were doing the twist, and we were appalled," said Bachmeyer, who lived with Ashcroft for all four years.
Barr, Ashcroft's roommate of two years and a close friend to this day, attended Ashcroft's inaugural ball at the Missouri governor's mansion just a few years ago, and said the former State attorney general "still feels the same about dancing and drinking today as he did in college."
"There was never any alcohol," Barr said. "It was Perrier and lime. And when it came time for entertainment, no matter how much people wanted to dance, John had other ideas. He would play the piano and sing his gospel songs. And you know what? I'm sure he won't be dancing at the inaugural ball this weekend in Washington."
Midwest meets Northeast
Ashcroft did not go out of his way to criticize other students, but his roommates said he made his opinion known through the way he acted.
"Was he preachy about his values? At times, yes he was," Conrad said. "You knew what he believed in. You knew he was religious. He was from the Midwest, and he was conservative religiously."
Regardless of whether the two were linked ― Ashcroft's Midwestern roots and his religious conservatism ― Ashcroft for the most part distrusted and disliked the Northeast, especially eastern cities like New York and New Haven.
"He told me once, 'In Missouri, we don't call New York the Big Apple. We call it the rotten apple,' " Conrad recalls. "And John definitely hated New Haven."
At times Ashcroft longed for the familiarity of his home in Springfield MO, where his parents had moved to be closer to the headquarters of the Assemblies of God church.
"The academic load, being away from home, being out east in an environment that was far more liberal than the one he grew up in," Conrad said. "He didn't like that much."