Friday, April 04, 2008

Where the Eagle Soars: John Ashcroft visits Saratoga Springs

When it was over, he collected his $25,000 speaking fee and walked out into the Saratoga night.

In the university setting, the former attorney general quoted scientist Albert Einstein's prose and the poetry of Emma Lazarus, whose words are engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty.

He gave a history lesson on the nation's freedom-fighting weaponry, localized to include everything from the country's earliest Battle of Saratoga to his own formative years.

"When I was a boy, it was enough to keep track of the Russians," he said. "It's not enough to do that now."

The timeline provided a lyrical segue to the modern age, laced with the threat of biological agents and evil chemistry of "the new level of destructiveness."

You could be killed, Ashcroft said. Extinguished. Or very badly damaged.

Ashcroft is known in some quarters for the rendition of his song, "Let the Eagle Soar." The evening began with another tune, the six-syllable song "af-ter nine el-ev-en."

It poured out the mouth of 21-year-old Skidmore Young Republican Assembly President Tom Qualtere during his introductory remarks and later was revisited by Ashcroft himself, when he recalled flying on an airplane that Tuesday morning in 2001 and seeing Kalamazoo out one side of the airplane and Grand Rapids out the other.

"That's when the captain barked out from the cockpit: Ashcroft! You better call the Command Center."

A crowd of mostly Skidmore College students packed the Gannett Auditorium, overflowing into an adjoining hall and a snack bar in another campus building nearby to watch the event being simulcast on giant screens.

Inside the main arena, closest to the podium, a blue-jean brigade sharpened questions and awaited Ashcroft's arrival.

"This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the person who has done so many horrible things for our country," said sophomore Aviva Ariel, seated inside the auditorium.

In a nearby row, junior Alicea Cock-Esteb said she had staked out her seat at 5 p.m., a full 2-1/2 hours before the lecture was set to begin.

"I expect to listen to him and to become very frustrated," she said.

She did not get the opportunity to ask a question, although a handful of her classmates did.

They asked about his anti-abortion philosophy and about gay rights. They asked about not being able to locate WMDs in Iraq, about the growing heroin trade in Afghanistan and about "inhumane" uses of torture.

Ashcroft defused the questions with attempts at humor and self-deprecation and a verbal dance clouded by the fog of war.

There were the soundbytes of the 21st century -- "Fighting the terrorists there is preferable to fighting them here" -- punctuated by an occasional "dog-gummit." He also fumbled verbally with "Obama" and "Osama."

Questions were taken from students, but the media, who had filled up a good portion of the front rows, were ignored.

Benjamin Yelin, president of the Skidmore Democrats, said he disagreed with virtually everything Ashcroft stands for.

Yelin had the opportunity to ask the last question of the night. He requested that the former attorney general sing a song.

Ashcroft turned him down.

By Thomas Dimopoulos
Published in the Post-Star, Friday, April 4, 2008

More on Ashcroft's visit to Saratoga Springs and the defacing of a poster promoting the lecture.