Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Clamming up, zipping the lip, taking the Fifth

So now we have the legal adviser to the nation’s chief law enforcement officer declaring that she intends to take the Fifth.

Monica Goodling, senior counselor to attorney general Alberto “Fredo” Gonzales, said late yesterday (through her own lawyer) that she will invoke her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and thus decline to answer any congressional questions about her role in the U.S. attorney purge scandal. By taking the Fifth, she may well be on solid legal ground, but her decision may not play well in the court of public opinion. Particularly in the wake of a new poll showing that Americans favor a congressional probe of this scandal by a margin of 3-1.

To put it charitably, the Bush administration already has a reputation for being less than truthful on a wide range of matters – and now we have a high-ranking Justice Department official, the legal liaison between Gonzales and the White House, opting to clam up. Goodling has certainly taken a daring position, befitting a graduate of Pat Robertson's Regent University law school, where the mission is "to produce Christian leaders who will make a difference, who will change the world."

Even for many conservatives, Goodling's zip-it strategy is an embarrassment. Terry Jeffrey, activist and editor of Human Events, told CNN yesterday afternoon: "Congress, its Judiciary Committees, they have oversight over the Justice Department. It's inexcusable for people in the Justice Department to take the Fifth Amendment to avoid testifying in Congress. People there must go testify. There's no question about it." And as conservative blogger Ed Morrissey put it late yesterday, “People will rightly wonder why senior Justice officials cannot testify honestly to Congress without incriminating themselves – and they not going to blame Congress. The assumption will be that some crime got committed, because without a crime there's no chance of incrimination, at least not in the legal sense.”

That’s what is striking about the statement released by Goodling’s lawyer. Apparently, Goodling can’t afford to testify truthfully under oath because if she did so, somebody (perhaps her, perhaps a colleague, perhaps a superior) would be open to a perjury charge. That argument certainly doesn’t speak well for an administration which has sought to insist that (a) it did nothing wrong by firing those U.S. attorneys, and (b) it has been candid and consistent in saying so.

To which I ask, if the purge was supposedly no big deal (“overblown,” as Gonzales recently described it), then why are the players refusing to come clean about it? Why would Goodling take the Fifth, and why is the White House insisting that Karl Rove and Harriet Miers can be interviewed only in the absence of a transcript? And since I’m not a lawyer, I’m also wondering whether it is legally appropriate for Goodling to take the Fifth just because she thinks that her senatorial inquisitors are a bunch of meanies (her lawyer is complaining about “the hostile and questionable environment in the current congressional proceedings”).

In politics, symbols matter. Taking the Fifth is a durable constitutional right, but it won’t make the Bush regime look good to have the attorney general’s counsel following in the footsteps of people like Frank Costello (famed mobster who took the Fifth in 1950), crooked Teamster leader Dave Beck (who took the Fifth 200 times in 1957), Oliver North, and John Poindexter (figures in the Iran-Contra scandal). Fairly or not, many Americans have a gut instinct about people who take the Fifth; as President Dwight Eisenhower said during a press conference, commenting on Teamster hearings, “I must say I probably share the common reaction – If a man has to go to the Fifth Amendment, there must be something he doesn’t want to tell.”

On the other hand, Goodling would also be following in the footsteps of Zero Mostel, a Hollywood blacklist victim who is widely viewed with sympathy today. Mostel is also our winner of the Most Comedic Taking the Fifth Award.

Back in 1955, the rotund comic and entertainer was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, to explain why, in the late 1940s, he had performed for some groups that the panel deemed to be subversive. But whenever this was asked, he would simply hold up five fingers and wiggle them at his questioners. He did, however, agree to break his silence when asked about his current employment:

Q- “What studio are you with?”
A- “18th Century Fox.”
Q- “Do you want that statement to stand?”
A- “Make it 19th Century Fox.”


John Edwards is a crafty guy; no wonder he was so persuasive with juries. Most of the early reaction to his 60 Minutes interview about Elizabeth’s illness has centered on this (seemingly) selfless quote: “There's not a single person in America that should vote for me because Elizabeth has cancer. Not a one. If you're considering doing it, don't do it. Do not vote for us because you feel some sympathy or compassion for us. That would be an enormous mistake. The vote for the presidency is far too important for any of those things to influence it."

On the other hand, I found this remark to be more noteworthy: “Every single candidate running for president of the United States has a personal life that indicates something about what kind of human being they are, and I think it is a fair evaluation for Americans to make.”

Translation: He most certainly hopes that voters will factor his personal crisis into their thinking. That second statement throws down the gauntlet. What he’s essentially saying, in that remark, is this: “Look at Rudy Giuliani’s personal life (three wives), John McCain’s personal life (two wives), Newt Gingrich’s personal life (three wives) Hillary Clinton’s personal life (a late-night comic’s dream), and look at mine. Now show me the love.”


On the serious illness front, best wishes also to Tony Snow.