Thursday, May 24, 2007

Confessions of a "quiet girl"

One of President Bush’s inexperienced ideological apparatchiks provided us yesterday with an illuminating tutorial on the rule of law.

Here’s the gist of Monica Goodling’s advice: Even if you think that maybe you might be breaking the law, you’re still blameless as long as you think you didn’t really “mean” to do it. And even if you essentially have to admit that you did break the law, you’re still OK as long as you think your motives were pure, and as long as you think of yourself as (in her words) “a fairly quiet girl who tries to do the right thing and tries to treat people kindly along the way.”

You kids watching at home, I would not advise following Monica’s legal advice. Granted, this advice comes from a former top official of the U.S. Justice Department, but it’s important to remember that you are living in the Bush era, when it is considered perfectly acceptable to entrust a top Justice post to somebody who has never prosecuted a case in court, somebody who earned her spurs at the Republican National Committee, somebody who earned her law degree from Pat Robertson’s Regent University, which, last we checked, was rated nationally as a fourth-tier law school. There is no fifth tier.

While testifying yesterday on the prosecutor purge scandal (and becoming the latest Justice bigwig to plead ignorance on the origins of the purge list), Goodling did something that is virtually unprecedented, at least for a loyal Bushie: She confessed error. No doubt she felt comfortable doing so because she was testifying under a grant of immunity from prosecution, but whatever. It was still bracing to see somebody from this administration dip a toe into the world of factual reality.

And the reality, of course, is that this administration has been laboring to politicize the once-independent Justice Department, seeking to make it the legal arm of the Republican party. The fired U.S. attorneys have been saying this for many months; the documentary evidence has been overwhelming; and a newly retired senior career Justice official, Daniel Metcalfe, spilled the beans just last month.

The civil service laws state quite clearly that job applicants for non-partisan positions should be quizzed only on their competence and professional qualifications, not on their political leanings. Any screener who stresses the latter should be considered in breach of the law.

Here’s Goodling yesterday, talking about her five years at Justice: “I do acknowledge that I may have gone too far in asking political questions of applicants for career positions. I may have taken inappropriate political considerations into account on some occasions. And I regret those mistakes.” Later, when asked how often this happened, she said: “I can’t think that I could have done it more than 50 times, but I don’t know.”

Goodling is currently the target of an internal Justice probe into whether she violated what the department calls “prohibited personnel practices.” (Translation: Even though she was basically doing what her superiors wanted, she’s being set up to take the fall.) Indeed, recent news reports have detailed her screening criteria for nonpartisan posts. She stalled the hiring of job applicants whom she suspected to be liberals (she copped to one specific case yesterday, confessing that she made a “snap judgment”); she ousted career prosecutors who failed her political litmus tests; she researched applicants’ campaign contributions; and, at one point, this law grad from a religious-right institution even came up with a personal morality pop quiz, asking one Justice applicant, “Have you ever cheated on your wife?”

All told, Justice careerists and applicants who ran afoul of Goodling were sometimes warned that they had "a Monica problem." But yesterday, despite the fact that she was ‘fessing up, she did so with a caveat. She offered what I would essentially call the Nice Girl Defense. A nice girl doesn’t plot to do anything wrong, it just happens. Witness this exchange yesterday:

Q: “Do you believe that (it was) legal or illegal for you to take those political considerations in mind?”

Goodling: “I don’t believe I intended to commit a crime…I crossed the line of the civil service rules.”

Q: “Rules? Laws. You crossed the law on civil service laws. You crossed the line on civil service laws, is that right?”

Goodling: “I believe I crossed the lines. But I didn’t mean to.”

I don’t believe I intended to…I didn’t mean to…

Kids at home, I would advise you not to employ the Goodling defense if you ever get stopped by a cop for speeding. For instance, if a cop says that radar clocked you going 75 in a 55 zone, do not bother to say “I don’t believe I intended” to speed. Nor should you say “I didn’t mean to.” He’ll write that ticket anyway.

Goodling’s attempt to offer mitigating circumstances merely prompts more questions. Was she aware of the civil service bar on partisan screening? Did her Bush superiors indicate to her that she was expected to abide by those rules? After she breached them a few times, did anybody flag her behavior and tell her to stop? Can she credibly argue that she “didn’t mean to” cross the line - when in fact she was a repeat offender, doing so on roughly 50 occasions? (Best defense: She just couldn’t help it.)

Here’s the short answer to all of the above: Goodling was merely an instrument of the Bush administration strategy to politicize the nonpartisan institutions of government.

All we need do is connect the dots. Lest we forget, Lurita Doan, the chief of the General Services Administration, was recently summoned to Capitol Hill to explain why – in apparent violation of federal law – she allowed a Karl Rove political lieutenant to brief nonpartisan GSA workers on the GOP’s ’08 election prospects. At that Jan. 26 event, Doan also reportedly discussed ways that her agency might be able to help GOP candidates, whom she referred to as “our candidates.”

And now we have word that the independent Office of Special Counsel has found Doan to be in breach of the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal officials from engaging partisan political activity in the federal workplace. Yet Doan is not an isolated example, either; reports have indicated that similar partisan briefings have occurred at virtually all federal agencies.

Doan, however, still maintains that she doesn’t remember that Jan. 26 meeting. By comparison, Monica Goodling is Jimmy Stewart, which might be enough to earn her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


The liberal Democratic base is outraged today about the congressional cave-in on the Iraq war money. The Democrats are giving Bush what he wants, financing without a withdrawal timeline, and the Capitol Hill voting is expected today. But I don't see why anybody should be shocked, since this outcome has long been obvious. I'll return to the topic tomorrow; for now, I'll quote my own newspaper column of April 29:

In a British-style parliamentary system, (Bush) would be gone by now. But even a politically weakened American commander in chief can still play a strong hand - which is why, at least for now, the congressional Democrats are doomed to fail in their current bid to legislate an end to the war. Public sentiment (against the war) is irrelevant; all that matters, in this hardball political moment, is the stubborn stance of the Decider and the math on Capitol Hill. Bush will veto any spending bill that contains a pullout timetable, and the Democrats lack the votes to override him. Later this spring, they'll probably wind up giving him the war money he wants, absent any pullout timetable, in part because they don't want to be tarred as being "against the troops," particularly on the eve of an election year. (Indeed, a CBS News poll reported this month that only 9 percent of Americans favor cutting off all the war money.) So, looking down the road, it's a cinch bet that our soldiers will still be dying on the day Bush fobs off the disaster on his successor.