Lunch with a Legend
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At first, it seemed an odd place to meet a man who some might think of as a living legend. But there I was, preparing to meet and interview the former attorney general of Missouri (1976-1985), Missouri governor (1985-1993), U.S. Senator from Missouri (1995-2001), and U.S. Attorney General (2001-2005) John Ashcroft.
Ashcroft, who attends Evangel Temple Assembly of God in Springfield, Missouri, arrived and entered the restaurant. His walk was easy, confident . . . a man comfortable in his own skin.
As I greeted the even-toned Ashcroft at the entrance, we turned and were immediately in front of the order counter, where a female employee was happily smiling toward Ashcroft.
Moments later, I began to realize that the restaurant, as simple as it may have seemed, was a safe and welcoming place for Ashcroft.
“Would you like the John Ashcroft Special today?” the woman asked.
Did I hear right? The restaurant has a dish named for him? I glanced up — there, behind the counter and above the ordering window was a framed black-and-white photo of Ashcroft from what appeared to be his days as governor. And then I recalled how the interview almost never happened because no one knew where “Flossy’s” restaurant was — it wasn’t the restaurant’s name, but the name of the ever-so-friendly woman now taking our order.
With time, new lines have appeared on Ashcroft’s now 77-year-old visage, but they’re friendly lines to go along with his heavily graying hair. But as we begin to talk, it quickly becomes clear that he’s very sharp, has things that he’s very passionate about, has a deadpan sense of humor, and is confident enough to be self-deprecating with his humor, which would seem uncommon for anyone with his resume.
SAVING SCRIPTURAL SONGS
As our steaming meals arrive at the table, Ashcroft shares he’s still involved in holding services at camps, churches, denominational meetings, and other gatherings that focus on God’s Word and the deep spiritual value and significance of scriptural songs.
“I think that they don’t want to lose the value that is to be learned and rehearsed when we sing these great songs that have a lot of theology and content,” Ashcroft says, measuring his words. “We’ll go [conduct a service] whenever someone asks us, but we won’t go unless someone asks us.”
Ashcroft says the songs that are his favorite, whether written in a relatively contemporary setting or years ago, are the songs with content.
“If you want a song that illustrates content, go to the third verse of Great is Thy Faithfulness — ‘Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth, Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide; Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside.’”
He notes that all in one verse, the song speaks of the pardon, peace, presence, power, promise, and provision of God.
“That’s pretty rich,” he states. “There are more than merely six words there; there are six concepts . . . the whole idea is to use singing to elaborate on Scripture. When we the Scripture says, ‘forget not all His benefits,’ one of the ways to do that is to elaborate His benefits by singing the song.
“The Bible has a lot of instruction about singing, and teaching with singing,” he continues. “There’s more [in the Bible] about singing than preaching, at least to my awareness. Some people say what you eat is what you are; I think what you sing is what you are.”
As Ashcroft continues to discuss his passion for songs that communicate Scripture, he points out the importance of how song continues its powerful influence in today’s culture.
“I believe that music is understood in a different neurological process than other learning is; I think it comes from a different part of the brain,” he says. “I don’t know what other cultures do, but the English-speaking culture uses music to teach people the most fundamental things in life. I don’t know a single person who learned the ABCs without music.”
Ashcroft also points out the durability of music, how even those who may no longer remember the names of relatives, often still recognize and can sing songs and how people can still recite the ingredients of a Big Mac due to an old (1970s) musical jingle.
“It’s no wonder that the Bible instructs us to admonish each other by singing,” he observes. “And if you define admonishing as shaping behavior, is there a more pleasant way to shape behavior than have people sing the right things into their behavior?”
CHRISTIAN HIGHER EDUCATION
Another passion of Ashcroft’s is Christian Higher Education. He’s willing to do whatever he can to help. Rattling off the acronyms of numerous AG universities he’s spoken at and made presentations for, he explains that he makes appearances for the cost of his travel. And when speaking on topics such as national security at other schools, he asks that honoraria be sent to Evangel University, where he father was one-time president there as well as at Central Bible College.
Referencing Daily Light, a devotional, Ashcroft mentions two passages that he thinks characterizes Christian education, Malachi 3:16 (the Lord pleased by those who respect Him and discuss Him) and Luke 24:13-35 (the road to Emmaus, following Christ’s crucifixion). He notes that in both instances (as well as elsewhere in the Bible), when people discuss, commune, and reason about God in faith, Jesus draws near.
“It blew my mind what happened when these guys on the road to Emmaus communed and reasoned together — Jesus showed up,” he states. “I think that’s what Evangel [University] is all about: a community that’s discussing and reasoning together in the context of faith — and Jesus shows up.”
He explains that in Christian schools, students have a unique environment that has a special presence of God.
“Our problem is not the absence of God, it’s the absence of our recognition of the fact that God is there. Understanding God’s presence should affect our conduct and should affect the way we treat each other — which is part of our conduct. That’s what Christian education is about,” Ashcroft observes. “I think Christian education is under serious attack and I don’t think most of the people in our churches care.”
Ashcroft, who enjoys singing and writing songs, including a song sang at George W. Bush’s second inauguration (Let the Eagle Soar), says that he still plays the piano every day. He also enjoys hosting groups from his church at his farm, including his church’s Royal Rangers campout, some Sunday School events, and helping missionaries out when he can.
He says he’s very grateful for how God has blessed his son Jay, the current Missouri secretary of state. “He’s exceeded every expectation I’ve had for him as a public servant . . . I’ve been very pleased,” Ashcroft says warmly. “I just feel like he more fully utilizes all of his capacities. You know, there are certain jobs that sort of call on you for what you are good at or can be good at. I think public service has really engaged him and his entire person most beneficially.”
And there’s no doubt that he appreciates, loves, and respects his wife of 50-plus years, Janet.
“In the winter we ski,” Ashcroft says. “We go to the Winter Park [Colorado] area . . . in the summer, we do a lot of hiking, we hike in Colorado as well.”
The Ashcrofts also invest quite a bit of time on their farm; he working with the cattle, fences, and other farmhand jobs while Janet is a meticulous gardener, well known for her homemade blackberry jam.
“Janet is a highly skilled attorney. She’s taught law and taught accounting at various places,” Ashcroft says. “But I remember when we were first married she sewed many of her own clothes and most of the wardrobe of our first child, Marty — she eventually sewed Marty’s wedding dress. While she is a highly trained Chicago law school lawyer, she knows how to work.”
Ashcroft himself will spend several weeks this spring teaching at the Regent University Law School in Virginia, as he has for the past 14 years.
AND FINALLY, GUS
If there was one pleasantly surprising moment during the interview, it was when Ashcroft mentioned his dog, Gus — the “best dog in the world.”
An 8-year-old Vizsla — an energetic breed known for its agility and obedience — Gus has clearly won Ashcroft’s affection and respect.
“I like to teach him tricks, so my grandkids can come and do tricks with him,” Ashcroft says, going on to share some of the tricks he has mastered.
But then comes the “ah-ha” moment when Ashcroft pulls out his phone and begins to show us picture after picture of Gus in action. It appears Gus has a bit of a “showman” side — having his own calendar depicting him wrapping Christmas presents, reading the Sunday morning paper, raking leaves, playing the piano, playing the ukulele, driving the welcome wagon . . . and oh, here’s a picture from a meeting at Camp David (with President Bush and other key leaders present . . ., but let’s get back to Gus).
“I’m telling you he’s not an ordinary dog,” Ashcroft says. “I tell you, he literally has a group of fans that ask about him. . . they don’t give a rip about what happens to me, ‘Where’s Gus?’”
And the secret to getting Gus to do extraordinary tricks?
“It’s Cheetos,” Ashcroft says. “He likes the crunchy kind . . . never ask me about my dog,” he adds with dry humor.
JUST A GOOD GUY
As the interview drew to a close, the John Ashcroft Specials evidently made to delicious perfection, it was clear that my initial evaluation of his walk — a man just comfortable in his own skin/in who he was — was on target.
Friendly, congenial, a man with priorities and passions, and who hadn’t let his positions of power lead to pride, John Ashcroft left me feeling deeply impressed. God could have called any other man or woman to walk the political tightrope He asked Ashcroft to traverse, but he chose him, evidently for good reason.
Perhaps what I was impressed the most by wasn’t the reams of accomplishments anyone can find in an internet search, his strong support of Christian higher education, or even his passion for Scripture — it was more than that. He left me thinking, Wouldn’t it be great to have him as a friend.