Farewell to Ashcroft urban legend

The satirical report on the Democratic Underground website may have seemed bizarre to outsiders, but it was old news to Attorney General John Ashcroft.

According to a fictitious poll by CNN, Time and Cat Fancy Magazine, 52 percent of calico cats surveyed were afraid -- even deathly afraid -- of the attorney general and another 36 percent were "somewhat afraid." Some cats said they believed Ashcroft is, in fact, a sign of the devil.

"There have been reported cases of young kittens actually dying of fear when Ashcroft appears on television," said the fake news story. "Luckily for them, they have nine lives."

Behind the satire was an Internet report that spread as a rumor that became an "urban legend" about the Pentecostal Christian who was the highest of lightning rods during the first administration of President George W. Bush. Ashcroft will soon leave the cabinet, but this episode offers a window into how the religious and secular left viewed his faith and even the faith of his boss.

The rumor? Here is how it was stated by the San Fernando Valley Folklore Society (www.snopes.com): "Attorney General John Ashcroft believes calico cats are a sign of the devil." The site says this rumor is "false" and calls it "one of the most bizarre items we've had to tackle in recent memory."

The key to understanding urban legends is that the people who spread them sincerely want to believe they are true, said Barbara Mikkelson, a curator at this urban legends research site. They don't believe they are spreading lies.

"People have a tendency to immediately believe rumors about people that they don't like or that they don't respect," she said. "We tend to spread the stories that, on some level, we agree with. It tells us that we are right.

"So along comes this story that is perfect and it confirms all of those views that we already hold. Of course we want to share it. It's just too perfect."

In the Internet age, legions of people click "forward" and pass the rumor along to friends through email, many of whom do the same or even post it somewhere on the World Wide Web.

Urban legends are especially popular among religious conservatives, millions of whom believe that mainstream media conspire to hide the best and the worst of the news. Thus, digital true believers excitedly circulate reports about NASA confirming biblical miracles, evil activists asking the Federal Communications Commission to zap religious media and a born-again president boldly sharing his faith with troubled teens.

But this particular legend sprang up on the left, beginning with web columnist and Democratic National Committee treasurer Andrew Tobias. Citing anonymous sources, he wrote that members of Ashcroft's advance team had confirmed that their boss "believes calico cats are signs of the devil" and wants them removed from his path.

When pushed, Tobias declined to be more specific about sources. The tale of the demonic cats leapt into cyberspace and assumed a life of its own, as anyone can learn by typing "Ashcroft," "calico" and "Satan" (or "devil") into a computer search engine.

The attorney general laughed off the rumors -- again and again. Finally, a reporter from The American Enterprise asked if he had any idea how the rumor began.

"Absolutely none. ... In any case, there's no truth to it," said Ashcroft, a graduate of Yale and the University of Chicago Law School. "I owned a calico cat on the farm I lived on until I went away to be the state auditor of Missouri."

Still, the urban legend grew. It even reached the New York Times.

The natural tendency, said Mikkelson, is to focus on who starts the rumor. The more important question is this: Who is spreading the urban legend and why are they doing so? The Ashcroft rumor is especially interesting because it was spread by powerful people in the mainstream of politics and media.

"What we have here is a mirror held up to the people who are spreading it," she said. "What it shows us is something about their values and their hopes and their fears about the world around them. ... Even if the story isn't true, they believe that it ought to be true. They want it to be true."