Friday, April 20, 2007

Watergate, Here We Come Again

Not in more than a generation -- not since Sam Ervin's Senate Select Committee on Campaign Practices held what came to be known as the Watergate hearings -- have we seen U.S. senators display such bipartisan disgust and outrage at a government official as was witnessed yesterday when Attorney General Alfredo Gonzalez testified for over seven hours. After more than two decades of unconstrained partisan rancor in Washington, it was truly an astonishing thing to behold.

Most members of the Senate Judiciary Committee didn't utter the word "liar" outright, but almost every one of them left no doubt that's what they think Alberto Gonzales is. Even Republican conservatives Orrin Hatch and Sam Brownback managed but a few tepid comments more or less for show. Here's the New York Times' description of these two shrinking defenders of Gonzales:
Even the most loyal Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee found it impossible to throw Mr. Gonzales a lifeline. The best Orrin Hatch of Utah could do was to mutter that “I think that you’ll agree that this was poorly handled” and to suggest that Mr. Gonzales should just be forgiven. Senator Sam Brownback led Mr. Gonzales through the names of the fired attorneys, evidently hoping he would offer cogent reasons for their dismissal.

Some of his answers were merely laughable. Mr. Gonzales said one prosecutor deserved to be fired because he wrote a letter that annoyed the deputy attorney general. Another prosecutor had the gall to ask Mr. Gonzales to reconsider a decision to seek the death penalty. (Mr. Gonzales, of course, is famous for never reconsidering a death penalty case, no matter how powerful the arguments are.)

Mr. Gonzales criticized other fired prosecutors for “poor management,” for losing the confidence of career prosecutors and for “not having total control of the office.” With those criticisms, Mr. Gonzales was really describing his own record: he has been a poor manager who has had no control over his department and has lost the confidence of his professional staff and all
Americans.

As Salon's Michael Sherer describes it, Gonzales --
was criticized by every Democrat on the committee, as well as most of the Republicans, who often delivered the most stinging rebukes.

"Your ability to lead the Department of Justice is in question," said Alabama's Jeff Sessions, who normally toes the White House line.

"You have a tremendous credibility problem," said South Carolina's Lindsey Graham.

"We just don't have a straight story," said Iowa's Chuck Grassley.

By the time the floor was given to Oklahoma's Tom Coburn, one of the most conservative members of the committee, everything seemed to be headed south for Gonzales. "It was handled incompetently," Coburn said about the group firing of the attorneys. "It's generous to say that there were misstatements. That's a generous statement. And I believe you ought to suffer the consequences."

So what's it all mean? Charlie Savage -- who just won a well deserved Pulitzer Prize for an earlier expose of Bush administration criminality-- summed things up in today's Boston Globe:
During a full day of often-heated testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Gonzales heard repeated suggestions from lawmakers of both parties that he should consider resigning. But the nation’s top law enforcement official insisted he will not step aside.
* * *
At the White House yesterday, spokeswoman Dana Perino reiterated that Bush had no plans to ask for Gonzales’s resignation. ‘‘I think the president has full confidence in the attorney general and whenever that changes for any public servant we’ll let you know, and I see no indication of that,’’ Perino said.

So, is that it? Is Bush going to back friend "Fredo" to the hilt? Are we destined to suffer for the next two years with a top law enforcement officer for the nation who is known as a "dull-witted apparatchik," in the words of the Times, and a serial liar, to boot?

Not likely. While the White House and Gonzales may be whistling past yesterday's graveyard, the Senate committee is far from done. Columnists like Joe Conason are now calling for "appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the crimes that may have been committed in the firing of the eight U.S. attorneys and the coverup that followed." There will be more such calls in the days ahead.

To anyone who was politically conscious in 1972-73, this whole business has the look, feel, and smell of the earliest days of Watergate. There was a day when that budding scandal was mistakenly dismissed as just a "third-rate burglary." Similarly, there are some, today, who readily excuse the mess Gonzales has made of the Justice Department as merely the benign consequence of a delegation-style of management.

But if the thoroughly-disgraced Gonzales doesn't resign soon, the Senate Judiciary Committee is certain to continue pursuing answers to all the questions Gonzales couldn't -- or wouldn't -- answer yesterday. Chief among these is, Who really decided to fire eight U.S. attorneys and why? Who was the real Decider? Saying 'I don't know' and 'I don't remember' over 71 times, as Gonzales did according to several news accounts, is an invitation to redouble the investigative effort.

It's a certainty the White House and Karl Rove don't want those answers exposed. But, as long as Gonzales refuses to resign and Bush protects him, what they'll get is a Senate investigation that comes closer and closer to the presidential suite.

As history tells us, once a bipartisan Senate investigation gets inside the White House West Wing there's no telling how many new crimes will be exposed. By then, however, it will too late to fire the underlings, as Nixon tried to do in a last-minute wholesale purge of his Administration," as Kissinger has described it.

Keeping Gonzales could well lead, just as John Dean's new book describes, to the exposure of something --

1 comment:

Bryan said...

Bush has to be the one keeping Gonzales there, Gonzales has never done anything that Bush/Rove didn't want him to do. This isn't going away, and not going to get better.

This is just stupid and arrogant. Gonzo is toast. He should resign before he gets impeached, because the written record already show he lied to Congress.