In virtually any other Presidency, Alberto Gonzales—a clumsy prevaricator, a talentless hack and a dangerously indifferent advocate of the rule of law—would be a dead man walking. In the Bush White House, though, he is the walking dead—a curiously lifeless drone who seems to draw strength from the leadership vacuum surrounding him.
And he seems fated to ride out yet another week as Attorney General in a morale-sapped Department of Justice—as Harry Reid doesn’t seem to be lending Chuck Schumer much support in his Gonzales project. But the Congressional controversy swirling around the heavy-treading ghoul makes him a stranger and more disturbing figure than previously feared.
Washington’s pundit class, fixated as usual upon the flimsy melodramas in the highest reaches of the White House, marvels at how President Bush stands behind such an obvious political liability. A better question, though, would be why Gonzales—whose job, after all, is to interpret and safeguard the constitutional rule of law–is so firmly Velcro’d to a President single-mindedly set on shredding core constitutional doctrines such as the separation of powers and legislative oversight in hot pursuit of the mystical powers of the “unitary executive.”
The nation saw a bracing example of Mr. Gonzales’ habitual prostration before the executive branch last week, when James Comey—who had been deputy attorney general under Gonzales’ predecessor, John Ashcroft—came before the Senate Judiciary Committee and described a 2004 episode in which Mr. Gonzales, then legal counsel to the President, bum-rushed the hospital room in which an infirm Mr. Ashcroft was recovering from pancreatic surgery.
Mr. Gonzales had brought along White House chief of staff and all-purpose political fixer Andrew Card to lean on the bedridden Mr. Ashcroft; they wanted him to reverse a recent Office of Legal Counsel ruling that the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program was in fact illegal. That judgment—a well-nigh unprecedented O.L.C. reversal of a prior positive ruling on the program’s legal fitness—meant that the N.S.A., together with the program’s other enablers at Justice and the F.B.I., had been knowingly violating the law for the three weeks between the O.L.C.’s finding and the Victorian bedside melodrama engineered by Messrs. Gonzales and Card.
As Mr. Comey explained, he, Mr. Ashcroft, and F.B.I. director Robert Mueller were prepared to resign over the White House’s manifest plans to let the wiretapping proposal stand in defiance of the O.L.C.’s interpretation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. A last-minute concession from the White House prevented things from coming to that pass. Still, the larger set-piece makes it painfully clear how the Bush Team, and particularly Mr. Gonzales, regards the rule of law: as a harried afterthought, gamed into shape only to maximize the reach of executive power, and then just as hastily discarded.
In the Nixon years, this sort of trickery was understood to pose nothing less than a constitutional crisis. Nixon’s Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, famously resigned in 1973 over a breach of his independence arguably not much more momentous than the dispute at the heart of the Comey story—Nixon’s dismissal of Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox.
And certainly few of the enforcers in Nixon’s White House—not even attack dogs like H.R. Haldeman—would have been so arrogant as to conscript a recently anesthetized and bedridden Attorney General to sign off on the plan.
One former Justice official doesn’t shy away from making Watergate parallels—within reason.
“There’s a risk with Watergate of pressing the comparison too broadly,” said the former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, “Richard Nixon was personally implicated. There was proven criminality; a lot of people went to jail. You don’t yet have anything like that here.”
Still, he sees a stark point of comparison: “It’s the arrogance—the blatant disdain and the utter disregard for the integrity of the Justice Department—that brings this so very close.”