Monday, August 27, 2007

Gonzales Steps Down, But Bush Remains Stubborn to the End

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has finally resigned. The Gonzales saga has been as drawn out as its result has been inevitable. With both Democrats and Republicans in Congress favoring his ouster, it is not surprising that this day has come. But, it is illuminating as to how long it took for it to arrive.

Gonzales testified before Congress for the first time on the dismissal of eight U.S. Attorneys on January 18, more than seven months ago. Soon after, the investigation began (on March 19 I defended the Gonzales investigation in this space). As the months wore on and Gonzales testified before Congress several times, he dug himself a deeper and deeper grave. His favored answer when questioned seem to be some variation of "I don't remember." He soon lost support from Democrats and Republicans alike.

Except for one Republican: President Bush. Just as virtually every observer decried Gonazles's confusing and less-than-forthcoming testimony, Bush said he did a great job.

So, when the day arrived that Gonzales finally did what he should have done months ago and gave up the job he had butchered from day one, did Bush finally come around and realize that he had made a mistake in supporting someone that most members of his own party thought was not fit for office? If you answered yes, you are either incredibly naive or have spent the last six years in a coma. No, in a Yahoo!/AP article on the resignation, Bush was quoted as saying, "After months of unfair treatment that has created a harmful distraction at the Justice Department, Judge Gonzales decided to resign his position and I accept his decision."

See, it isn't that Gonzales has lost the confidence of a majority of the country. No, it's the "unfair treatment" that Gonzales has endured. As if poor, hard-working, effective, law-abiding Gonzales was randomly set upon by a herd of jackals in Congress, rather than the truth, that Gonzales has done a horrendous job, including making false statements to Congress. Notice, Bush never pointed to the Democrats (as he usually does) as the perpetrators of this "unfair treatment." He couldn't, considering that some of the loudest voices calling for Gonzales's ouster (as well as, apparently, some of the softest voices behind the scenes) were from Republicans.

In an April 24 article here, I laid out why Gonzales's alleged misdeeds were important and rose to a level requiring an investigation. Now that Gonzales is gone, his legacy should entail something far more odious than his deception of Congress (which is, in and of itself, pretty odious). Rather, Gonzales should be remembered for the politicization of the Justice Department.

When Gonzales moved from being Bush's White House Counsel to replacing John Ashcroft as the attorney general, he acted like he had gotten a promotion within the same company. Same responsibilities, better salary and perks. So, when he went from serving in a political role, where his job was to protect the interests of the president, to being the highest ranking law enforcement agent in the country, where his job is to protect the law, he never changed his way of doing business.

Only, the attorney general is not supposed to be the president's henchman. Rather, the attorney general has always been treated as an independent enforcer of the law who, once appointed, was supposed to be outside the political sphere of the White House. It's not like Bill Clinton was a big fan of Janet Reno, and Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus refused Richard Nixon's demand that they fire Archibald Cox, the Watergate independent prosecutor, leading to their dismissals in the so-called Saturday Night Massacre. You can't help but think that had Alberto Gonzales been the attorney general in 1973, not only would he have acceded to Nixon's demand to fire Cox, but he would have also sent a couple of CREEP operators over to shred some files, just to make sure the Big Guy knew whose side he was on.

Unlike all of his modern predecessors (including the very conservative John Ashcroft), Gonzales viewed himself as an organ of the White House, not as an independent law enforcement officer serving the American people.

If Gonzales turns out to be an aberration -- that is, if Bush appoints a respected legal mind, no matter how conservative he/she is, and if the next president follows by appointing a non-crony -- then we can look back on the Gonzales reign in the Justice Department as one of history's big screw-ups and move on. But if Gonzales's assault on the independence of the Justice Department becomes the new way of doing business, history will point to his time in office the way the George H.W. Bush's Willie Horton commercial against Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential race is viewed as the patient zero of offensive attack television ads.

And how fitting is it that Bush has not learned his lesson. Even with the vast majority of Americans, inside and outside of the beltway, coming to the conclusion that Gonzales was a disaster who had to go, Bush was stubborn to the end, insisting that he knows better than everyone. Where everyone saw incompetence, Bush saw outstanding service. Yet again, Bush hasn't learned from any of his mistakes (from the ongoing quagmire in Iraq to continuing to hire cronies after "Brownie" failed miserably after Hurricane Katrina), and the American people are left holding the bag, forced to suffer through Bush's mistakes. The whole world knew this day was coming, that Gonzales was the proverbial dead man walking. Only Bush saw fit to drag this ordeal out for more than half a year.

At least it was good to see that like the Iraqi parliament, Bush is on vacation yet again. (Bush seems to go on holiday more often than a travel writer.) While some have criticized him for leaving Washington so often, I applaud him. The last place I want to see George W. Bush is anywhere near the White House.