Vol. 16 No. 9 (September, 2006) pp.754-756


GENERAL ASHCROFT: ATTORNEY AT WAR, by Nancy V. Baker.  Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2006.  320pp.  Cloth.  $34.95.  ISBN: 0-7006-1455-9.


Reviewed by Rebecca U. Thorpe, Department of Government & Politics, University of Maryland.  Email: rthorpe [at] gvpt.umd.edu.


The aggressive character of U.S. foreign policy after 9/11, coupled by tightened security measures on the domestic front, has evoked charges of virtually unchecked executive authority in the Bush Administration from across the political spectrum. A number of books surfaced in the aftermath of 9/11, responding specifically to the policies of the Bush Administration, above all to its determined efforts to promote and justify unilateral executive action in efforts to obstruct terrorism and engage in war unilaterally (e.g.,  Johnson 2004; Chomsky 2003; Prestowitz 2003). With GENERAL ASHCROFT: ATTORNEY AT WAR, Nancy Baker joins the host of academic voices captured by the current rise of presidential power. Although by no means the first book to undertake such an examination, ATTORNEY AT WAR does so from a distinct perspective: through the lens of the Attorney General and national law enforcement powers.


Baker abstains from a broad indictment and offers a balanced account free of ad hominem attack. The text provides a well-researched description of the events surrounding the nation’s anti-terrorism response and the corresponding changes in legal policies, in light of Attorney General John Ashcroft’s instrumental role. Three factors are key to this understanding: the framework of a ‘war on terrorism’ catalyzed by the events of 9/11, the legal policy role of the attorney general, and the presence of John Ashcroft in such a time, place, and position (p.11).


The book is, in a sense, a biographical narrative – a radius swinging around the focal point of one man uniquely situated in the political position and with the religiously-inspired will to craft a legal policy agenda that aims to eviscerate evil, in response to the attacks of September 11. Though Ashcroft’s distinct role in the Bush Administration may be politically important – or at least of significant historical interest – Baker’s documentation suggests something of an orchestrated plan by a singular agent serving a like-minded president. Rather than casting the attorney general’s role as a leading indicator of a larger political context, the book offers a narrative where one of the most powerful attorneys general in the nation’s history works actively to transform an entire legal policy. Despite Baker’s modest language – she demonstrates caution in not explicitly overstating her case – the simultaneous disregard for political strategy as opposed to individual attitude, collective instead of personal decision-making, and the role of politics in shaping legal policies, render the account implicitly overstated.


Justice Thomas Reed Powell once called legal analysis the art of thinking about how one thing relates to another without [*755] thinking about the other. Baker illustrates how Ashcroft’s legal policy agenda relates to an expansive scope of presidential powers to wage war on terrorism without explicit recognition of the historical contours of American presidential power or when and how constitutional authority expands and contracts.


This is not to deny the influence of the Bush Administration and Attorney General Ashcroft in shaping legal policy to augment presidential authority. Rather, it suggests that a predisposition to hegemonic presidential authority generally – and to war powers more specifically – may have arisen in White House circles before September 11, 2001. As early as American constitutional ratification began, Alexander Hamilton championed “energy in the executive” as a “leading characteristic in good government” (FEDERALIST 70). Two centuries later, Stephen Skowronek’s (1993) influential work cast presidential politics as a “blunt disruptive force” contingent on a given leader’s “relation to the received order.” In other words, exogenous circumstances, along with individual leadership, play a role in determining the character that a presidential order will take.


The legacies of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan all show how ‘reconstructive’ leaders succeed in forsaking traditional structures and animating new visions, which then set the tone for their successors. Yet, from a bird’s eye view, these ostensibly transformative orders reveal themselves as cyclical processes subject to various political vicissitudes. In this regard, 9/11 and the Bush Administration’s sweeping response ought to be construed as an event and an opportunistic political appeal that catalyzed existing tendencies rather than as a unique historical turning point. Indeed, George W. Bush’s vow that the United States will “rid the world of evil,” which “for John Ashcroft . . . drove the need for a hegemonic presidency” (p.60), echoes the claims of his predecessors going back as far as Woodrow Wilson (see “President Woodrow Wilson’s War Message,” April 2, 1917, www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/ww18.htm (accessed September 21, 2006)).


By adopting a singular focus centered on Ashcroft’s legal finesse, an author runs the risk of producing a distorted picture of the comparative authority of the Attorney General and the Bush Administration in domestic affairs and national security. Applied as such, ATTORNEY GENERAL AT WAR cannot stand in isolation. It can, however, provide an important and previously neglected piece of the American political puzzle.



Chomsky, Noam. 2003. HEGEMONY OR SURVIVAL: AMERICA’S QUEST FOR GLOBAL DOMINANCE.  New York: Metropolitan Books.


Rossiter, Clinton (ed). 2003. THE FEDERALIST PAPERS.  New York: Signet Classic. [*756]


Johnson, Chalmers. 2004. THE SORROWS OF EMPIRE; MILITARISM, SECRECY, AND THE END OF THE REPUBLIC. New York: Metropolitan Books.




Skowronek, Stephen. 1993. THE POLITICS PRESIDENTS MAKE: LEADERSHIP FROM JOHN ADAMS TO GEORGE BUSH. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


© Copyright 2006 by the author, Rebecca U. Thorpe.