GREENVILLE, S.C.-- The good folks (for that is how they see themselves) at Bob Jones University are no doubt astounded to find themselves for the second time in a year -- nay, for the second time in a brand-new millennium -- to be a focus of national, even world attention. Inexorably, it must seem, this monastic tribe is brought out of its preferred backwater by the presence of some or another prominent politician.

In 2000, it was George W. Bush, touching base with the hard core of the Religious Right to win a primary over the insurgent John McCain. Now, in a way, it's president-elect Bush's doing again. He went and nominated another paragon of conservative Christianity, John Ashcroft, to be his attorney general, administerer of the laws and beacon of justice for an increasingly diverse nation. And once the politically correct media found out that Ashcroft had been to Bob Jones last year to receive an honorary degree and speak (actually, the word seeped out in Ashcroft's losing Senate campaign), he, too, was fair game. Why did he do it? What did he say to the faithful? Picky, picky!

That's how it must have seemed, in any case, as the administration of President Bob Jones III settled in for another siege - this one occasioned not by national remonstrations over the school's anti-Catholic persuasion nor by the oddities of its social practices but by the hunt for a possibly mythical tape. Unbelievably, given Ashcroft's prominence as a U.S. Senator and -- in May 199, when he made his remarks at BJU -- by his potential presidential candidacy, his visit was not publicly noted. Not by the local Greenville, South Carolina, media, not by the national media, and not even by BJU's own media (since commencement exercises, by their very nature, mark the end of a school year).

There was no particular evidence that Ashcroft - under fire as his confirmation hearings neared for his attitudes and actions concerning blacks, women, and civil liberties - had said or done anything inflammatory. It was more a case, as the general counsel for one prominent Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee put it, that "Ashcroft is trying to pretend that he's beyond reproach, that he had no idea what kind of place Bob Jones University was or what kind far-right belief it stood for. There was the sense that anything he said at Bob Jones would have to indicate his eyes were open concerning its anti-Catholicism and its other bigotries and that, by being there, he approved of them."

Hence, the Judiciary Democrats were almost as zealous as the media in trying to ferret out some spoor, some documentary evidence of Ashcroft's deeds and statements at Bob Jones. When it was learned, late last week, that, in fact, a videotape did exist and that the school's spokesman, Jonathan Pait, had reviewed it (read: Bob Jones III himself had checked it out), Pait made a point of saying (a) that the school would not release the tape to anybody in the media; and (b) it would be released to the Judiciary Committee if Ashcroft requested it to.

This last indulgence was cover for the root fact that Judiciary would have the tape, either by subpoena or by Ashcroft's recognition that his nomination was doomed if he connived in the holding back of a document presumed vital.

The denial to the media was spite and sweet revenge, nothing else. As Pait confided later on (after Bob Jones had decided to let Larry King, who had been permitted to interview Jones at the time of last year's flap): "We wanted to punish the liberal national media for their unfairness and their determination to slander Bob Jones University."

Larry King was allowed to have the goods again, after two or three days of the most intense - and futile - courtship (or siege) by the rest of the national media. And the tape, when finally shown, seemed superficially to be fairly innocuous, not worth the fuss. Ashcroft, then a senator facing either a reelection race or a presidential bid, had been honored by the university along with U.S. Reps. Asa Hutchinson and Lindsey Graham, two of the managers in Bill Clinton's impeachment trial. The Missouri senator had been, as president Jones noted in his introduction of the tape on the King program, the first senator to call for Clinton's impeachment.

So it was no great stretch to see that the honor bestowed on these three tribunes of the Congress was, in effect, intended as a rebuke to the reigning Caesar.

Ashcroft, in his brief remarks, played on that theme.

He reminded the listening students and faculty of what he said was a war-cry of the American colonists: "We have no king but Jesus." He dilated upon the civil authority vis-ˆ-vis the "eternal authority," and he said that "when you have no king but Caesar, you release Barabbas." It was clearly an allusion to the recently aborted attempt by congressional Republicans to oust Clinton.

But it was also a rhetorical fallback onto the turf of government-bashers and religious interventionists, and that part might still give Ashcroft fits as Judiciary readies for its hearings with him, beginning on Tuesday. When president Jones had a chance to provide his gloss of the tape immediately after it was shown to the nation on the King show, he made haste to proclaim that Ashcroft's acceptance of an honorary degree should not be held against him. "In no way does that imply that he endorses the granting institution. . .," Jones said, by way of providing an absolution of Ashcroft against any presumed guilt by association. Was he surprised at the furor of the last several days? King asked. Jones replied: "Not considering the source. The raucous political left ... makes a lot of noise."

Jones said he thought Ashcroft's words on the tape would "comfort" rank-and-file Americans and help the senator in his confirmation fight. He conceded, however, that his own support and that of his university might have hurt Ashcroft somewhat. "Sometimes I don't like myself very well," he jested. Acknowledging that much of America incorrectly believed that Bob Jones University was racist, he attempted to absolve Ashcroft of the taint, contending that it was unlikely the honoree had known of the school's then existing ban on interracial dating among students.

Ashbrook was a "a fine godly gentle covictioned man," Jones insisted -one fully deserving of confirmation.

As for Jones himself and his institution, he had once again - as he did a year ago on the self-same Larry King show - showed that he possessed some degree of flexibility. Not only did he admit that Bob Jones University could be an albatross, he could make unexpected forays onto secular turf, as when he pronounced about an emblem that sits atop South Carolina's capitol: "The Confederate flag needs to come down; it's an unnecessary offense to good people."

It was instructive to remember last year's appearance, when Jones had chosen the moment of his emergence - and that of his institution's -- in the national spotlight on the Larry King Show to make an unexpected about-face, revoking in prime time the school's interracial dating ban.

This week Jones quoted a saying by Jesus: "Give to Caesar that which is Caesar's," and went on to say that John Ashcroft believed so, too. In a curious way, his very appearance on King's secular medium and his behavior on his two Warholian nights reinforced the maxim. In the year since his first appearance, change had conspicuously occurred at his school. A visitor to the campus last year noticed that the school's female students wore long, floor-length skirts, without exception. This year there were several coeds on campus conspicuously ambling about in skirts cut as high as the knee, showing a fair amount of leg.

Earlier, Pait had been asked about that and had said about the long skirts, which had been widely reported as being in obedience to a school mandate, "It was never anything but a style. I saw a picture during the year of Bill Clinton with Chelsea in front of the Taj Mahal. She was wearing a long skirt. She could have been a Bob Jones student!"

There was something odd about this coupling of the Clinton ambience with that of Bob Jones University - but something that was, in its own way, appropriate. For if there was anything that was demonstrated by these two Bob Jones moments, a year apart, it was that even the most isolated and different amongst us could be brought into a semblance of conformity with evolving national custom.

Between now and John Ashcroft's confrontation with the Senate Judiciary Committee, and perhaps even afterward, many will continue to focus on the presumed rigidity of Bob Jones University and its backers The real story, however, might be the very obverse of all that. The main thing that seems to have happened in both of these highly publicized eyeball-to-eyeball encounters of church and state is that it wasn't Caesar that ended up blinking.

In both cases it was the state, or the secular-minded, that ended up being rendered to.

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