Well, He’s Gone

The summary on the last Monday in August –

 

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, whose tenure has been marred by controversy and accusations of perjury before Congress, announced his resignation in Washington today, declaring that he had “lived the American dream” by being able to lead the Justice Department.

 

Mr. Gonzales, who had rebuffed calls for his resignation for months, submitted it to President Bush by telephone on Friday, a senior administration official said. There had been rumblings over the weekend that Mr. Gonzales’s departure was imminent, although the White House sought to quell the rumors.

 

Mr. Gonzales appeared cheerful and composed when he announced that he was stepping down effective Sept. 17. His very worst days on the job were “better than my father’s best days,” he said, alluding to his family’s hardscrabble past.  “Thank you, and God bless America,” Mr. Gonzales said, exiting without responding to questions.

 

In Waco, President Bush said he had accepted the resignation reluctantly. He praised his old friend as “a man of integrity, decency and principle” and complained of the “months of unfair treatment” that preceded the resignation.  “It’s sad,” Mr. Bush said, asserting that Mr. Gonzales’s name had been “dragged through the mud for political reasons.”

 

The president said the solicitor general, Paul D. Clement, would serve as acting attorney general until a permanent replacement was chosen.

 

And that was that.  Except that it perhaps wasn’t, as in Gonzales Departure Won’t End Probes

 

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ resignation Monday after months of draining controversy drew expressions of relief from Republicans and a vow from Democrats to pursue their investigation into fired federal prosecutors.

 

The resignation was odd – there was no triggering event.  Nothing bad happened.  It was just the dead end of summer, and no one was paying attention – the professional football star who kills dogs for fun and profit had much to say, and a pro-family pro-marriage anti-gay Idaho senator got himself arrested in an airport restroom for requesting what he should not have requested from a male undercover cop.  The latter seems to happen a lot with those righteous about what is morally acceptable, who rant about what God tells them is permissible and what is not.  One more I-hate-that-I’m-gay man of God getting caught is no big deal – but that and the many-dead-dogs story gave the Gonzales resignation some cover.  It slipped into the news cycle and actually slipped out now and then – no sexual nastiness or big-eyed pathetic dogs were involved, after all. The cable news folks are no dummies.  They need to keep viewers tuned in.  The news is a business, not a civics class.

 

Gonzales announced his resignation with no mention of the allegations, the investigations or the scandals that have now led to the departure of more than half a dozen top Justice Department officials.  The top three positions at Justice are now vacant.  No matter.  He just wouldn’t answer any questions – he simply flashed his odd smile and walked away.  The president did mention some of that nasty stuff – but he was defiant, and he has “defiant” down cold after all these years.  It’s his specialty, or, for many, the core of his charismatic cowboy charm.  The president said that it’s “sad” that “we live in a time when a talented and honorable person like Alberto Gonzales is impeding [sic] from doing important work because his good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons.”  Yes, the English language is not his specialty.

 

What did people think of all this?  David Cole is a law professor at Georgetown and the author, with Jules Lobel, of Less Safe, Less Free: Why America is Losing the War on Terror (New Press, September 2007).  He asks what seems to be a key question – “What will President Bush do without Alberto Gonzales around to tell the president he can do whatever he wants?”

 

You see, Cheney is of no use here.  He’s not a legal advisor.  Gonzales, on the other hand, took an oath to uphold the Constitution and laws of the United States, but saw the job as something else entirely.  His job seems to have been, quite literally, to look at what Cheney and his staff told the president to do, and figure out a way to see what was to be done as quite legal and constitutional.  It’s just another conceptualization of the role.

 

And Cole notes it worked out pretty well –

 

When Bush was considering whether to extend Geneva Convention protection to detainees at Guantánamo, Gonzales dismissed the Conventions as “obsolete” and “quaint,” and said they need not apply. The Supreme Court disagreed, ruling in 2006 that the Geneva Conventions apply to all detainees, but not before Guantánamo had become a world-renowned symbol of U.S. arrogance, lawlessness and cruelty.

 

Gonzales’ secretive maneuverings to allow the brutal treatment of prisoners only exacerbated the damage. When the CIA expressed concern that its employees might be held liable under a criminal law barring torture because of its practice of waterboarding – interrogating immobilized suspects by pouring water over their faces until they believe they are drowning – Gonzales commissioned a memorandum from Justice Department lawyers Jay Bybee and John Yoo assuring the CIA interrogators that torture was restricted to the level of physical pain associated with “organ failure and death” – leaving interrogators free to simulate drowning to their hearts’ content. When that closely held opinion was eventually leaked to the press, the administration was forced to retract the memorandum and replace it with a new one on the eve of Gonzales’ confirmation hearings for the office of attorney general. But the damage was done: Coercive interrogation techniques had trickled down the chain of command and resulted in the Abu Ghraib scandal, another boon to al-Qaida recruitment and a direct hit on the United States’ image worldwide.

 

And there are two others –

 

When someone pointed out that the international treaty on torture, signed and ratified by the United States, also forbade all “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment,” Gonzales advised that this language simply did not cover foreigners held by the United States abroad. On this highly implausible ground, he argued that the international human rights treaty protected only U.S. citizens held abroad from abusive treatment. When Sen. John McCain learned of that interpretation, he persuaded huge majorities in both houses of Congress to reject it, over the strenuous objections of Gonzales and the White House. But long before the mistake was rectified, the world learned that the United States had adopted an official policy of subjecting other nations’ citizens to cruel treatment that it could never use with respect to its own citizens.

 

When the president wanted to wiretap telephone calls of Americans without a warrant, in direct violation of a criminal statute requiring court orders for all such surveillance, Gonzales opined that the president could ignore the law because, as commander in chief, he could not be bound by the other branches in how he “engages the enemy.” A federal court declared that reading unconstitutional. While the case was on appeal the administration retreated, announcing that it had submitted the program to judicial supervision under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the very law Gonzales had argued the president could violate with impunity.

 

It’s all how you see the job.  Things need doing.  You work hard at figuring out how to do them.  Someone has to remove the minor roadblocks.  Yes, in each case the administration was forced to retreat – but only a little.  Of course Cole notes also “not before the United States developed an international reputation as a country that views the rule of law as a luxury to be discarded at its convenience, especially when it comes to the rights of foreign nationals.”

 

Actually a good number of people here feel that this rule of law stuff is an effete luxury, so the proximate cause of the resignation seems to have actually been the politicized firing of those US attorneys at the beginning of the second term, and in particular Gonzales’ “failure to be candid” during the subsequent congressional investigation.  There was talk of going after him for perjury, from the Democrats, but even the Republicans were just fed up.  He had no idea what had happened or who did what – and pretty much demonstrated that he wasn’t actually managing the department – he was just hanging around there.  The Democrats wanted to know who the hell was making the decisions.  The Republicans didn’t much care, but they were embarrassed.

 

Gonzales just saw his job differently.  Someone has to remove the minor roadblocks, the legal ones in this case.  He did his job.

 

Cole points out the obvious –

 

The rule of law is not self-executing. It requires individuals to enforce it, even when it goes against their (or their bosses’) wishes. That’s why we require federal officials to swear an oath to uphold the Constitution and the laws of the United States. Ultimately, the rule of law, which is always counterposed to the rule of men, requires men and women to stand up for the law against those who would abuse the power with which they are entrusted.

 

In March 2007, in the midst of the scandal about the firing of the U.S. attorneys, former Deputy Attorney General James Comey – someone who knows about standing up for the law – sent one of the terminated attorneys an e-mail message that concluded, “What’s that quotation about all that’s necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to remain silent.” Gonzales not only remained silent, but affirmatively aided in the triumph of evil.

 

Bush and Gonzales never saw it that way.  The “bad guys” were evil.  You used the law – you twisted it to help you or ignored it when it got in your way – to fight evil and all that.  That was necessary, and even noble – or so they were claiming.  Some see that as missing the whole point about why we have laws.  But the administration explicitly sees that particular and idealistic position as dangerously naïve.  The former group felt a little better on Monday, August 27, with this man gone – but this disagreement about the law is hardly settled.

 

Which side are you on?

 

Sonia Smith at SLATE in her survey of the blog reaction sees that no one much agrees with the president that Gonzales’ name had been “dragged through the mud for political reasons.”  No one is cutting the guy much slack there.

 

See conservative Mary Katharine Ham with this – “Gonzales leaves without about one political ally to his name, and now we’ll hear another cloying Bush speech about how a guy no one really liked and who brought considerable problems upon the administration through his own bone-headedness was actually the greatest guy evuh.”

 

At the right of everyone Captain’s Quarters’ conservative Ed Morrissey pours it on – “No one did anything illegal in terminating the federal prosecutors, but Gonzales and his team made it into a royal botch-up anyway. Gonzales really should have resigned after telling people publicly that the attorneys had performance issues when their reviews showed that they had performed well.”

 

On the left, Hilary Bok just looks at the damage done

 

He wrote the legal opinions that allowed the administration to disregard laws it did not wish to follow, and in so doing did real damage to the structure of our government and to the separation of powers. He took a department that was, by all accounts, superb, and trashed it. And by being so transparently interested only in advancing the interests of George Bush at the expense of the laws he swore to uphold, the Constitution, and the national interest, he deepened cynicism about government at a time when we badly needed leaders worthy of our trust and our confidence.

 

Other than that he was just fine, but that doesn’t mean he’s off the hook.  At “The Nation’s Online Beat,” John Nichols says Congress need to plow on – “Only a continued inquiry into the lawlessness of the soon-to-be-former Attorney General will achieve what is the essential purpose of this Congress: the restoring of the rule of law to a country deeply damaged by petty little men who chose personal loyalties and political expediency over their duty to the Republic.”

 

Petty little men?  Matthew Yglesias suggests we’ll just get another one “My best guess Bush will go out of his way to pick somebody fairly controversial – someone whose confirmation liberals will find outrageous – and then start loudly and immediately declaring that each hour’s delay in confirming his nominee is putting thousands of lives at risk.”  That is how things have gone.

 

Sonia Smith notes that pointing out that Gonzales “sucked as attorney general,” Reason’s Nick Gillespie asks an important question – “Was he in fact worse than Constitution-shredder and recidivist barbershop quarteter John Ashcroft (whose main qualification for the gig was losing to a dead man in an election)? Or Constitution-shredder and recidivist child abuser Janet Reno (whose main qualification for the gig was that she never paid a nanny under the table)?”

 

Yipes!  We’re in for a bumpy ride now.  Politico has a round up Washington reaction from all sides, if you care to go on.  Or you can amuse yourself with this video – count the times Gonzales says “I don’t recall” to Congress.

 

For real amusement take a look at Bruce Reed’s item that asks the real question – Who should succeed a failure?

 

The thesis –

 

When Karl Rove left, the White House wondered how to replace the irreplaceable. With Gonzales, the challenge is just the opposite: how best to replace someone so easily replaceable. If the key to success in politics is choosing your predecessor, Gonzales’ successor will be the luckiest person in America.

 

The biggest headache for the White House is that after the nightmare of Gonzales’ congressional testimony, Senate Democrats will try to turn his successor’s confirmation hearings into a rerun, not a sequel. The last Cabinet member to be run out of town was Donald Rumsfeld. His successor, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, spent the entire confirmation process answering variants of the same question: Are you now, or have you ever been, Donald Rumsfeld?

 

That was with a Republican Congress and a war going on. This time, a Democratic Congress won’t worry all that much about who’ll run out the string at Justice, because it hardly matters: For the most part, the next attorney general will have to serve out Gonzales’ probation.

 

So there really is no good way to predict Gonzales’ successor, “since under the normal laws of political gravity, he would have disappeared long ago.”

 

Still Reed sees a few possibilities, like “The Climbers” –

 

The name mentioned most often is a celebrated job climber, Michael Chertoff, who gave up lifetime tenure as a federal judge to become Homeland Security secretary. Chertoff has double the incentive, because his own gut tells him the DHS job is bound to end in disaster.

 

Another climber on the list is Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Chris Cox, who certainly knows how to time the market. After 16 years in Congress, Cox bolted for the SEC in the summer of 2005, leaving his Republican colleagues behind to rediscover life in the minority. If Chertoff gets Justice, Cox would no doubt be happy at Homeland Security, where he could take his chances with al-Qaida after two years of dealing with Sarbanes-Oxley.

 

Don’t count out the climber who scampered up several rungs today: Paul Clement, who moves from solicitor general to acting attorney general. Clement is only 41 – younger than Gonzales, older than Bobby Kennedy – but as a former Senate judiciary committee staffer, he might receive a certain amount of congressional courtesy.

 

And there are the “Old Hands” who “are assumed to have wisdom, judgment, independence – in short, the virtues Gonzales lacked.”  Ted Olson has indeed argued lots of cases before the Supreme Court – including Bush v. Gore – both as solicitor general and as a private attorney.  There are others, but who would want the job?

 

Reed has some off the wall ideas –

 

Fred Thompson is already bored with running for president before his campaign has started. He seems miscast as a presidential candidate, but he was born to play the role of attorney general. As a former senator and out-of-work federal prosecutor, Thompson wouldn’t even have to audition.

 

Sam Brownback is a distinguished lawyer, a member of the judiciary committee, and, like Ashcroft, a principled conservative. But the race for the Republican nomination is such a circus, the poor fellow lost the Iowa straw poll to a flip-flopper and a diet peddler. Why should Brownback stick around to watch Romney outspend him 10-1 on oppo, when he could run Justice and the FBI, the largest opposition-research department in American history?

 

Okay.  JUST ABOVE SUNSET suggests the woman who as an undergraduate at Cornell helped found The Cornell Review, graduated cum laude in 1984, and received her law degree from the University of Michigan Law School, where she achieved membership in the Order of the Coif and was an editor of the Michigan Law Review, and while at Michigan founded a local chapter of the Federalist Society, and who, after law school, served as a law clerk for Pasco Bowman II of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in Kansas City.  This is the woman who after a short time working in New York in private practice, where she specialized in corporate law, left to work for the United States Senate Judiciary Committee after the Republican Party took control of Congress in 1994.  Yes, the woman who handled crime and immigration issues for Senator Spencer Abraham of Michigan and helped craft legislation aimed to make it easier to deport aliens convicted of felonies.  Yep, that would be Ann Coulter.  You could look it up.  That she has called for the targeted assassination of key liberals and one particular Supreme Court justice, and thinks someone really should blow up the New York Times offices in Manhattan, might be a problem.  But she said she was just kidding.  You never know.  She could be nominated.

 

She’s probably too competent actually.  That’s not how things work in this administration, as John Dickerson explains here

 

Like the pope, the president doesn’t admit error. This was an early governing principle in the Bush White House. Policies could “evolve.” Talking points could be replaced by new ones that contradicted the earlier ones. The president could even resist a centralized approach to homeland security and then announce the creation of the second-largest department in the history of the federal government devoted to that purpose. But a president could never admit a blunder, because it irrevocably diminished his authority. This led to a famously awkward press conference in April 2004 where President Bush was unable to come up with a mistake he had committed and explain what he had learned from it. Since then, he has tried to improve on that answer but has admitted aloud only that he wishes he hadn’t used certain phrases, like “Bring ’em on” when referring to insurgent attacks in Iraq.

 

Nowhere has this approach sapped Bush’s credibility more than with his personnel goofs. As Alberto Gonzales resigns today, he joins Donald Rumsfeld, Harriet Miers, and Michael Brown – animated failures who could not be controlled or improved with good public relations. The pattern has been consistent: The president resists and resists calls for a change. Then he gives in. In Gonzales’ case, it’s almost as if Bush were perfecting this failed approach, wringing out of his embattled old friend so many embarrassing gaffes that he couldn’t be hurt anymore. Then he let him go.

 

You hire your high school friends and stick with them – or something like that.  Ann Coulter would not do.

 

As for what happened with Gonzales, it all played out as expected –

 

The more radioactive his aides become, the more Bush embraces them. With Gonzales, the president was particularly alone in this stance. Conservatives who might otherwise defend Bush against Democrats were appalled by Gonzales’ incompetence and the utter waste of time and energy devoted to cleaning up his messy department. Why does Bush hang on until his mistakes are glowing? In Gonzales’ case, there is their long-standing personal relationship. Bush brought him up from Texas and admires his up-by-the-bootstraps story. “I think of my friend Al Gonzales, recently sworn in as a Supreme Court justice,” Bush said in his second inaugural address as governor, back in 1999. “His parents reared eight children in a two-bedroom house in Houston. They sacrificed so that their children would have a chance to succeed. Al Gonzales has realized their dream.”

 

That’s nice, and it is also making “a fetish of loyalty even when unaccompanied by ability.”  But you can see now that developed with this president –

 

He saw how disloyal aides undercut his father. To win loyalty, Bush shows it. He also delights in riling his opponents and the Washington elites. If the “hand-wringers” and “second-guessers” wanted Gonzales out, that was even more reason to dig in his heels. Bush once said in an interview that he liked to lean forward a little during his State of the Union speeches when he knew what he was about to say would rile Democrats.

 

Bush also feels the essence of virtue is resisting any public outcry. He does this for public as well as internal purposes. “A president has got to be the calcium in the backbone,” Bush told author Bob Woodward. “If I weaken, the whole team weakens. If I’m doubtful, I can assure you there will be a lot of doubt.” Most famously Bush did this with FEMA Administrator Michael Brown, declaring that he’d done a “heck of a job” during the early days after Katrina. More glaring, though, was his consistent defense of Gonzales. In April, only moments after Gonzales gave a spectacularly inept and dishonest performance before the Senate judiciary committee, Bush said his confidence in Gonzales had increased.

 

Add a bit of self-delusion into the mix –

 

Bush has often talked in almost mystical terms about his ability to take the measure of people by looking them in the eye. His most infamous snap judgment, early in his first term, was peeking into the soul of Vladimir Putin and finding goodness. But even with years of presidential experience, he continues to make terrible judgments about the aptitudes of his own staffers. Harriet Miers and Alberto Gonzales may be very nice people, but they were never competent for the jobs Bush wanted them to have.

 

… When it came to personnel decisions, his personal sense of loyalty, his hostility to the Beltway establishment, and his stubbornness all clouded his judgment. Tolerating incompetence has harmed Bush in any number of ways. The worst of these is locking in the idea that he’s oblivious to reality.

 

This does not bode well.  Gonzales is gone.  Who really is next?

 

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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