Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Heckuva job, Alberto: the attorney general plays defense

On occasion, I receive emails from Bush fans who complain that I have not been giving “equal time” to “Democrat scandals,” now that the Democrats have been in power on Capitol Hill for…oh… two whole months. I understand their concern. But here’s the problem: Every time I start to look across the aisle at the blue team, that wacky Bush team (which, after all, has dominated Washington for the past six years) comes up with yet another new way to embarrass itself.

Consider, for instance, the press conference hosted this afternoon by Alberto Gonzales, the veteran Bush crony who doubles as the chief law enforcement officer of the United States. He’s in a bit of a pickle right now, because it turns out that his Justice Department has been outed as having lied repeatedly about the circumstances that led to the unprecedented firing of eight federal prosecutors. The shorthand is that Justice officials – and Gonzales personally – recently told Congress that these prosecutors were not replaced for partisan political reasons; indeed, Gonzales testified that his regime would “never, ever” do such a thing. But now it turns out, thanks to a Monday document dump, that these prosecutors were fired for partisan political reasons – and that the pressure for these firings originated in the White House, and were worked out in close consultation with Gonzales’ chief of staff.

One quick digression, for those of you who may not have been tracking this slow-burning scandal, or who may not be clear on its significance: Federal prosecutors are supposed to be insulated from partisan political pressures. They are virtually never forced out of their jobs; once appointed, they traditionally stay until a new president arrives to clean house. Indeed, the Congressional Research Service has found that, of 486 prosecutors appointed since 1981, only 3 have been forced out in midterm, apparently for egregious performance reasons. Yet now we have eight new firings all at once, in the middle of Bush’s second term, virtually none of them for performance reasons (even though Gonzales’ department did claim at first that the eight victims had earned poor job evaluations, but that argument has turned out to be a lie as well).

Anyway, Gonzales met the press today, took questions for roughly two minutes, then left the scene faster than a hit and run driver. Before departing, however, he exhibited all the symptoms of a cornered Washington pol. Which is to say, he employed all the classic defenses:

The Passive Voice defense. He confessed that “mistakes were made here,” the usual form of words that is meant to suggest that maybe the mistakes sort of happened by themselves, that no actual human being had specifically made them. Republicans might be well advised to remember that this was the same form of words used by Ted Kennedy right after Chappaquiddick.

The O.J. Simpson defense. This is generally employed by someone who insists he will boldly investigate wrongdoing, when in fact all he need do is look in the mirror. Accordingly, Gonzales said today that he will get out there and “ascertain what happened here,” and “assess the accountability.” He can actually start this task by simply reading what’s already in the public record and connecting the dots: Bush counsel Harriet Miers (the former Supreme Court nominee), who has been supremely loyal to her boss since the Texas days, wanted to fire all 93 prosecutors in midterm and replace them with people deemed more loyal to the Bush administration, so she sought out the chief aide to Gonzales, who in turn has been supremely loyal to his boss since the Texas days. That might help him ascertain.

The Richard Nixon defense. During Watergate, Nixon frequently said that he was “taking responsibility,” which was his way of saying that he wasn’t taking the blame. The person at the top of the flow chart manfully takes “responsibility,” but that’s very different from saying that he or she specifically did anything wrong. Hence, Gonzales: “I am responsible for what happens at the Department of Justice.”

The Busy Executive defense. This is also known as the “I’m so important, how was I supposed to know everything that was going on?” defense. Accordingly, Gonzales said today: “As we can all imagine, in an organization of 110,000 people, I am not aware of every bit of information that passes through the halls.” The phrasing “as we can all imagine” is a nice plea for understanding. The problem with this defense is that it paints Gonzales into a corner: either he is lying, since one doubts that an attorney general would consider the unprecedented firing of eight prosecutors to be on a par with the routine bits of information passing through the halls…or he really didn’t know what’s going on, didn’t have any idea what his chief of staff was cooking up with the White House – none of which speaks very well for his executive skills.

The Euphemism defense. This is employed by someone who wants to cushion the fact that he has uttered a blatant falsehood. Gonzales told Congress that he would “never, ever make a change (of prosecutors) for political reasons,” but now we know that it happened. (Especially in Arkansas, where a former Karl Rove aide was installed as a prosecutor. Gonzalez’ top guy even wrote an email, saying that “getting him appointed was important to Harriet, Karl, etc.” But Gonzales tried to spin his falsehood in the best light, so today he referred to his earlier claims as “incomplete information.” Actually, his exact words were that “incomplete information…may have been communicated to the Congress.” (See the Passive Voice defense.)

Finally, The Decider defense: Gonzales vowed not to resign, and signaled that only his longtime patron could make that decision: “I serve at the pleasure of the president.” Perhaps that’s his trump card. Judging by what we have previously seen in this administration, Gonzales may well be in line for the Presidential Medal of Freedom.