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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Beldar on AG-AG

A fellow attorney, good friend, razor wit and intellect, committed Democrat, and thus frequent informal debating partner — one of the three lunch companions I wrote about in April, when he and I and a couple of other friends hazarded our predictions for the two major parties' 2008 presidential and vice presidential tickets — left the following comment for me this week on another post:

Beldar, I sense a groundswell. Your loyal readers demand to know what you think of the Fredo Gonzales mêlée. Is it perjury, political posturing, or both? What say you?

BTW, we're still very much on track for a Giuliani/Frist ticket in '08.

In reverse order: I think Giuliani is still quite possibly going to be the GOP nominee, but the main change since April is that I'm more certain that McCain won't be. I'm still sticking to my Thompson/Romney prediction, though, at least for now. And I continue to think Frist would bring little besides a theoretical and entirely unnecessary geographic balance to a Guiliani-headed ticket.

I have never written much about Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales here. If you were to draw an inference from that, you'd probably be at least partly right, but probably only partly.

*******

Attorney General Gonzales and I have some mutual friends at his former law firm, Houston-based Vinson & Elkins, and he and I were rough contemporaries as Houston lawyers at cross-town rival firms in the 1980s and early 1990s. But our practice areas did not overlap, and I never encountered him while he was in private practice. His Hispanic heritage may have made a few preferences available to him that plain old Albert Smith might not have gotten, but I'm relatively certain that on balance, those were far more than outweighed by lingering prejudices that he had to overcome. Beyond what I know or can infer from our common experiences, most of what I know about him comes from reading about him in his various public roles — as Texas Secretary of State, as an associate justice of the Texas Supreme Court, and as a lawyer and adviser in various capacities for first Governor and then President George W. Bush.

Essentially all observers would agree that Dubya values loyalty very highly, and most observers would agree that most of the time, Dubya returns loyalty to those who've been fiercely loyal to him. That AG-AG has generated that loyalty, and that he has maintained it over so many years and through so many different positions, is a remarkable accomplishment in and of itself. Whether, politically speaking, you are a friend or foe of the current occupant of the Oval Office, I think that any thoughtful American has to acknowledge that it is a rare and noteworthy thing to have inspired such long-lasting confidence and trust from any American president.

Nor can anyone plausibly deny that Mr. Gonzales is genuinely motivated by a desire to render public service. He's left quite literally millions of dollars of partnership earnings from Vinson & Elkins behind in exchange for roles with no job security and, quite often, very little visible power. By no one's definition is he a power-monger or an empire-builder. He's undertaken very hard jobs in very difficult times, and for the past several months he's been the Democrats' favorite bogey man and punching bag — to the point that they've virtually canonized John Ashcroft, who was AG-AG's predecessor both as Attorney General and as punching bag/bogey man.

Vast amounts of Alberto Gonzales' public service — all but the tip of the iceberg of it — have taken place out of public sight, and indeed, out of sight of high-placed observers. I place almost no trust in tales from leakers, but even the senior-most of them, or those journalists given privileged temporary seats near the workings of power, aren't truly positioned to assess the relative value, or lack thereof, of his advice and counsel and assistance to his principal, George W. Bush. Cabinet officers traditionally say, when asked if they plan to resign, that they serve "at the pleasure of the president." That is not an empty formal statement, but the quite literal and encompassing truth. And I genuinely respect and support the system by which 62 million popular votes and 286 electoral votes gave Dubya the authority to decide, subject to non-revocable Senate consent, who ought to be the Attorney General. Probably more than most pundits of either political persuasion, then, I genuinely mean it when I say that the fact that the POTUS hasn't fired him is a good and sufficient reason for AG-AG to continue as AG.

There is much about the man that I admire, and for which I think he gets insufficient credit.

*******

Having written all that, and meant it, am I, personally, tickled pink with Alberto Gonzales' tenure and performance specifically as Attorney General of the United States? No, I'm not; to the contrary, I'm disappointed.

Perhaps because I'm a lawyer, my expectations for the holder of that cabinet post may be quite different than President Bush's. There are certainly other executive departments of comparable cosmic importance. Especially at times like the present, when we are at war or immersed in its functional equivalence, State and Defense and, now, Homeland Security are awfully important; Treasury is always important, if mystical; and none of the other departments are unimportant. And I'd have a hard time saying what makes, for example, a really first-rate Secretary of Transportation or Labor or Agriculture. But I have some affirmative expectations of U.S. Attorneys General, and some negative expectations as well.

Affirmatively, I expect a U.S. Attorney General to be a competent manager and CEO — the executive head of what effectively amounts to the world's oldest, largest, and by far most important law firm, serving the world's most powerful and needy client. The Department of Justice has enormous institutional momentum and tradition, and historically it has attracted some of the most talented and dedicated lawyers our nation could produce. I'm concerned that the recent recruitment and retention and promotion of talent from top to bottom in the DoJ may have suffered. But I confess that I lack the appropriate perspective and detailed information to draw confident conclusions about that. Let me just say that if AG Gonzales has been a brilliant and inspiring administrative leader, I'm unaware of evidence to show that.

Affirmatively, I also expect an Attorney General to be a loyal and effective advocate for his principal, the Chief Executive. There is no doubt of AG-AG's loyalty, nor that the substance of what he's been pitching corresponds precisely with what the Administration wants its Attorney General to pitch. And he has been persistent; a thinner-skinned man would have never taken the job, given the hostility he faced at his confirmation hearings (ostensibly due to his work as White House Counsel).That he perseveres in it despite near-universal criticism and considerable calumny is proof of astonishing personal strength.

Nor can there be any doubt that because of those substantive positions, because of the degree of political acrimony, and because of the violent times we're in, it would be extraordinarily hard for anyone to be a thoroughly successful advocate for the Bush-43 Administration before Congress or the mainstream media. To take the simplest example: Congress is rarely, even in wartime, going to want to accept any Attorney General's pro-Executive views on the relative powers among the branches of government. But right now, when the political opposition is more universally characterized by its rabid, personal hatred of George W. Bush than any other attribute, no spokesman for the Administration is going to get many pats on the back and hearty thanks from the likes of Sens. Reid, Leahy, Schumer, Durbin, or Kennedy. The mainstream media, in turn, love nothing better than a good circus, relish poking any presidential administration in the eye with a sharp stick as often as possible, and have their own philosophical disagreements with, and reflexive hostility for, Dubya and his minions in particular.

Nevertheless: AG-AG has been a weak, wishy-washy, inconsistent, stumbling, uncharismatic, inarticulate advocate. I know he has a lot on his plate. But every week, PBS and the commercial networks manage to pull talking head lawyers from the woodwork (well, actually, usually from the Reagan or Bush-41 Administrations) who do a far better job of articulating the Bush-43 Administration's case than it has done for itself. And I watched Fox News' Chris Wallace absolutely tongue-tie and humiliate Russ Feingold last Sunday morning, for example, on whether the Dems have any evidence at all to support the notion that some crime was committed in connection with the firings of the U.S. Attorneys. It's not like the Administration's opponents are intellectual supermen, and it's not like there aren't holes in many of their arguments, and it's not like the Administration is without ammo. But it needs a big gun to fire back. And as a public advocate for the Administration and its policies, AG-AG has been a low-caliber pop-gun.

Worse, he's been a pop-gunner who has far too often shot himself in the foot — which leads me to my negative expectations for anyone holding the role of Attorney General. If you are unprepared, if you are inarticulate, and if you are inconsistent, then you cannot project the probity and integrity that ought to be the shining, obvious, and unquestionable attributes of the Attorney General of the United States. The job position demands an occupant who will not appear to be either a liar or a fool, especially in (but not limited to) his dealings with Congress and the press. For the last several months, AG-AG has fallen short of that standard. Now, I can understand that an old coot like Sen. Arlen Specter might get confused and think someone's been lying when he really hasn't been. But when non-mavericks with no bone to pick like Sen. Jeff Sessions — himself once a prominent victim of a politicized bum rap, and one of the more astute questioners and oral advocates on the floor of the Senate or in committee — start voicing public doubts about you, then you are no longer even arguably serving as an effective advocate of the Administration of which you're a part.

*******

Is Alberto M. Gonzales really a liar and a perjurer? Oh, please. John Hinderaker at Power Line — using as his primary factual source that bastion of conservatism, the New York Times — punctures that thin balloon here. (See also this post, which explains why the Power Line guys are less enthusiastic defenders of AG-AG than even I am, but why they still bother doing so; and this op-ed in the WaPo.)

Taking two steps back for perspective: This entire meme suffers very badly from the internal incongruity that has always affected the Hard Left in its relationship with George W. Bush and his minions: Either they're evil geniuses intent upon, and capable of, subverting the Rule of Law through their wicked schemes, or they're the Keystone Cops. But it's impossible for them to be both. By his own admission, AG-AG has made many mistakes and misstatements, and he's shown poor preparation and no polish. I'm sad to say that he's a Keystone Cop, and he's certainly fed his opponents massive amounts of ammunition as well as blowing off most of his own toes (pop-gun or not). The nature of the job requires him, or any Attorney General, to sometimes be less than forthcoming and perhaps even evasive. But I do think he's basically an honest Keystone Cop, to the extent a consistent tale can be assembled from his many lusterless performances as a congressional witness.

And here's the conclusion I'm most loathe to state, because it's the one that makes me the saddest: I don't think there would be any point at this juncture in replacing him, even though he's become a huge net negative for the Administration. Scanning the list of the 80 Attorneys General in the history of the United States, I don't see a single one whom I'm confident could thoroughly "rescue" this cabinet position for the balance of the Bush-43 Administration. It's unlikely, in fact, that Dubya could get a new AG confirmed who would be at all to his liking: He'd rather have someone loyal and ineffective, even if a negative on the Hill or with the media, than someone whom he doesn't trust and whose loyalty he can't count on to issue the orders that need to be issued day to day at the DoJ. And politically, he's already at rock bottom, so it's entirely possible that the Dems will overplay their hand in a way that would improve things for the Administration.

I think we're all pretty much stuck with AG-AG until January 2009 or the string breaks on his pop-gun.

Posted by Beldar at 05:55 PM in Law (2007), Politics (2007) | Permalink

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Comments

(1) DWPittelli made the following comment | Jul 31, 2007 8:43:17 PM | Permalink

It seems to me that when you have a Senator such as Schumer mischaracterizing and lying about your testimony, and claiming that you are lying, the most important factor in defending yourself is that you defend yourself. This really requires a counterattack, namely, pointing out that, and how, Schumer has been lying.

There would of course be some cost to such action, but I do not think it would be higher than the cost of inaction.

Since Bush's essential weakness in office has also been his constant turning-of-the-cheek, I think it is more than possible that Gonzalez is acting in accordance with Bush's wishes on such matters.

(2) nk made the following comment | Jul 31, 2007 11:08:20 PM | Permalink

I'm afraid that the fault is at the top. When the Shrub had the "deer in the headlight eyes" in the first election, he hired good people like Ashcroft. As he got used to being President and gained "political capital" from 9/11 (don't anybody dare contradict it) and the re-election he got cockier while remaining a political imbecile. If Gonzalez is inarticulate his boss is even more so. "Unprepared and inconsistent", I won't venture an opinion. Inept and bumbling, administratively and politically, you betcha.

Oh well, we got Roberts and Alito out of the whole mess. Except that Roberts turns out to have a defective brain. Par for the course for Bush 43.

(3) Neo made the following comment | Aug 1, 2007 12:24:05 AM | Permalink

I understand that Alberto Gonzales hasn’t delivered a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee today by the promised noon deadline.

Seems Alberto is stuck on the salutation of the letter.

He started with "Dear gentlemen," but Gonzales said that really sounded like perjury.

(4) ed in texas made the following comment | Aug 1, 2007 6:35:24 AM | Permalink

Prediction: Bush will keep Gonzales where he is. Why? He (Bush) has finally found someone who pisses 'em off more than he does. No minor feat, that.

(5) Gregory Koster made the following comment | Aug 1, 2007 3:52:27 PM | Permalink

Dear Mr Dyer: "None" of the list of the 80 Attorneys General could "rescue" the Justice Department's position? Good heavens, get the cloning experts from the National Institutes of Medicine busy and get Robert Kennedy back there. The present Democratic Congress would follow him around like a moonstruck adolescent, giving the rest of the country a sweel show to snicker at.

A little more seriously, I think you underestimate the 80. My own candidate would be T. Roosevelt's third AG, Charles Joseph Bonaparte. Yes, he was related to THE Bonaparte's, and has sufficient pepper, in my view to do the "rescue."

If you feel like it, I'd very much like to read your views on the requirement of the Attorney General not to APPEAR to be a liar/fool in his dealings with Congress, the press and other such creatures. In my view, a large portion of this administration's troubles come from a haplessness and incompetence that is truly dismaying not only to Republicans, but to any citizen who wants the US Government to succeed. If, as you say, Geo. W. keeps Gonzales on out of loyalty, he has done himself, Gonzales, his Administration, and the nation a serious disservice. I agree with you that by now the mess created is hideous enough that Gonzales will stay until 2009, continuing his soccer ball imitation to more and more boredom and dismay.

I'd also like to readyour views on the tension between the Attorney General's dual role as the chief law enforcement officer, responsible for much of the administration of justice and his position as part of the President's executive team. Most of Gonzales's failure comes from the public perception that he's merely Geo. W's puppet, with no care for a disinterested administration of justice. The tension may be irreconcilable; in England about half the Attorneys General have been excluded from the Cabinet, so they could be impartial, and the other half have been included so they could be effective members of the Prime Minister's team.

Sincerely yours,
Gregory Koster

(6) Robin Roberts made the following comment | Aug 1, 2007 9:20:49 PM | Permalink

Beldar, excellant summation of the situation.

(7) stan made the following comment | Aug 2, 2007 2:49:01 PM | Permalink

While W and his people could do a much better job articulating their positions on issues, the people who are most guilty of going AWOL are the people of influence in the GOP and the conservative movement. They lack the courage to directly respond to the blatant attack that the MSM lauches on a daily basis. (And no, firing off blog posts to be read by the faithful isn't an effective response.)

The GOP and conservatives in general cannot move forward in the face of the brutal MSM propaganda assault until the voters in the mushy middle realize the breadth and depth of that assault. They will only realize it when someone goes to great pain and expense to make the case to them that the news they get is fatally infected.

Making that case will require a massive use of all available tools to get out the message that the MSM has embarked on a propaganda campaign of lies and slander. That means 527s, radio ads, tv ads, billboards, talk radio, web sites, blogs, e-mail networks, and basic word of mouth. It means not only getting the truth out on the economy and war, it means directly confronting the MSM with the evidence of its corruption. It means telling the American people the truth about their news providers.

Conservative opinion leaders lack the courage and don't want to open their wallets to fund the war. Bush can't openly declare such a war. Congressional and party leaders have no stomach for it.

It's just a lot easier to blame W and wait a couple of decades for the MSM dinosaurs to eventually go extinct in the technological revolution. The massive damage the MSM will cause in the interim is the price the cowards are willing to let the country pay.

(8) Carol Herman made the following comment | Aug 6, 2007 3:45:49 PM | Permalink

I'm just a citizen, bystander. Not a lawyer, either. And, I think Gonzales has gotten a bum rap. From an out of control congress.

And, I think congress' approval ratings dip because of this.

As to "power" and how people try to grab onto it. It's good to read, here, that Gonazales wasn't looking for personal attributes of power. Something the religious dope, John Ashcroft, managed to smear on his body, in some ritual before he took the AG job. Following which he covered naked breasted statuary.

Ya know, Armitage took a shot at Bush. So did Colin Powell. What we don't see is how good the Bush apparatus really is. And, what will happen later on. Career wise. Since it doesn't seem that the Bonkeys hae a winning candidate in sight for 2008.

As to Guiliani, I think he's gonna pick FRED THOMPSON.

And, off to the side, just this weekend; because of the powers of the Internet, a Kos "convention" broke up with John Soltz coming out the loser. In a contest with a Sgt. Who stood up. And, stood tall. Defending the "surge."

Wesley Clark, a real political animal from the Leftist school, though. Is really the one who lost out. Since by the time the Internet grabbed hold of this story, the "4-star" IDIOT Wesley Clark was just a cypher. Now, why was he there, in the first place?

It does seem possible, when you're talking about flaks who attempt to over-reach on power; you have Wesley Clark STOPPED IN HIS TRACKS. By the very people he goes to, looking for support.

More problems, then, for the Left. Fewer, by definition, for Bush His reputation, like good wines, may improve with age?

And, if that's true? The powers once held at State, the CIA, and the Pentagon, may be undergoing changes and revisions, in silence? Wouldn't surprise me.

(9) Friend #1 made the following comment | Aug 13, 2007 2:30:39 AM | Permalink

Dear Beldar,

Thank you for your thorough response to my inquiry. I am presently trapped in San Francisco International Airport. I am on the last leg of an extended vacation in Northern California, during which I visited SF, the Silicon Valley, Carmel-by-the-Sea and the beautiful City of Monterey. Your blog is a welcome respite from the local newspapers' daily genuflection to Barry Bonds, not to mention these - ouch, dammit! - unforgiving metal benches here in Terminal One ...

I have a few nits to pick with your post. Here goes:

While Dubya certainly is loyal to many who have displayed personal loyalty to him, I question whether that's necessarily a good thing. Stubborn loyalty - especially when it flies in the face of national interest - can be tremendously destructive. Dubya is displaying the same personal loyalty to AG Gonzales that Dubya previously displayed to Defense Secretary and Chief Iraq-Quagmire-Architect Donald Rumsfeld. I hope your readers can appreciate the irony of how George W. Bush finally lived up to his mantra of being a "uniter" when he manged to unite Iraq War protesters and dethroned right-wing pols. Both agreed that Rumsfeld should have been canned many months before the '06 election.

One has to wonder whether Dubya's loyalty to Gonzales runs deeper than their personal friendship. Pehaps it has more to do with shared traits than with, say, Bush's personal debt to Gonzales for getting Bush out of jury service years ago in a Texas DWI trial. To me, it appears that Bush recognizes the same character trait (flaw?) in Gonzales that he sees in himself. Like Dubya, Gonzales appears to value his own personal relationship with Bush above everything --including the national interest or the duties of Gonzales' current office.

*** By the way, a voice on the airport loudspeaker has just announced that we are at "Terror Alert Level Orange," so I may have to cut this short and practice my "duck and cover." ***

Beldar, you write that you "expect an Attorney General to be a loyal and effective advocate for his principal, the Chief Executive." I disagree. The Attorney General is the nation's chief law enforcement officer of the United States Government. The AG's loyalty is to the American people, not the person who hired him or the legislative body who confirmed him.
Perhaps Gonzales has spent so many years counseling (protecting?) Governor/President Bush that Gonzales can no longer distinguish between his former jobs and his present job.
You write that the mere fact that the POTUS hasn't fired AG Gonzales is sufficient reason for AG-AG to continue as AG. Again, I must respectfully disagree. Given this president's uniquely questionable track record for hiring and firing key personnel, it is not acceptable to trust Bush simply on the basis that he believes one of his key people is doing a "heckuva job."
This, of course, brings us to AG Gonzales, whom you must concede is not doing a heckuva job. Gonzales stood idly by while his Deputy AG, Paul McNulty, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that all but one of the U.S. Attorney firings were for "performance-related" issues. (Aside from that being totally false, it was an unconscionable display of disloyalty for Gonzales to allow the public slandering of loyal public servants. I can tell you from my own private discussions with AUSA's in Texas, Gonzales' failure to immediately clarify the record was a blow to the collective morale of the United States Attorney's Office.) Gonzales held a press conference in March 2007, in which he told reporters that he "was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on {in the firing of the nine United States Attorneys}." (Of course, AG-AG backtracked from that statement, which prompted many of us to wonder whether our nation's chief law enforcement officer was dishonest or incompetent. Gonzales didn't help matters in April 2007, during which he testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee that he didn't have specific knowledge of the firing process. Astonishingly, and in response to some fairly straightforward questions, Gonzales used the phrase "I don't recall" 64 times.)
Now we are confronted with Gonzales' claim - ultimately parsed and then re-parsed - that there was not any "serious disagreement" about the surveillance program that the president confirmed. I sincerely hope that Gonzales' supporters will forgive the majority of Americans who refuse to accept Gonzales' explanations merely on the basis that AG-AG hasn't been fired by a stubbornly loyal president, with a poor track record for hiring and firing key personnel.
It should be little wonder that a growing chorus of Americans want to see Gonzo, gonzo. This chorus includes prominent GOP voices such as Coburn, Graham, Specter and Sessions.Unquestionably, those who blame Gonzales' problems (and, by extension, Bush's political dilemna) on Leahy, Schumer and the MSM are missing the mark.
Massimo Calebrisi recently wrote in Time that there were "four reasons why Bush can't afford to let Gonzales go:
"1. Gonzales is all that stands between the White House and special prosecutors. As dicey as things are for Bush right now, his advisers know that they could get much worse. . . .
"2. A post-Gonzales DOJ would be in the hands of a nonpartisan, tough prosecutor, not a political hand. Newly appointed Deputy Attorney General Craig Morford is in line to take over until a new Attorney General could be confirmed. . . .
"3. If Gonzales goes, the White House fears that other losses will follow. . . . Republicans are loath to hand Democrats some high-profile casualties to use in the 2008 campaign. Stonewalling, they believe, is their best way to avoid another election focused on corruption issues. . . .
"4. Nobody at the White House wants the legal bills and headaches that come with being a target of investigations. In backing Gonzales, Bush is influenced by advisers whose future depends on the survival of their political bodyguard."
These seem like pretty good reasons and there are probably others. But, while there are no doubt many Democrats who secretly wish Gonzales would stay and continue to be "the gift that keeps on giving," I don't count myself among them. Gonzales is at best a distraction to the business of the United States Attorney's Office. At worst, AG-AG is a dangerous man who does not appear capable of distinguishing between his loyalty to the person who hired him, and his duty to the American people whose lives and liberty he is charged with safeguarding.
Now, as I sit here at SFI in the middle of the night and sincerely hope that my thoughts have not degenerated into useless rambling (your readers might have already reached such conclusion), I will sign off with my observation about the '08 prez election. A column in the politics section of the Sunday NYT concluded that, should Hillary win the Dem nomination, her most likely running mate would be someone like Mark Warner of Virginia. Should Giuliani win, the writer concluded that his running mate would be someone like Mike Huckabee. The column didn't mention Frist, but I think that'll come soon enough.
Great blog, amigo. Hope to speak with you soon!

(10) Beldar made the following comment | Aug 15, 2007 1:43:18 AM | Permalink

Hope you got home safely!

As always, my friend, you are an effective advocate for your views. Some of them, regarding Gonzales' effectiveness, I've already conceded. For the most part, I'll stand on my original post, with one exception.

I understand and respect your point about the Attorney General being responsible to the country at large. That's equally true, though -- exactly no more, exactly no less -- of every cabinet officer. And every cabinet officer is -- under the Constitution and laws and systems of separation of powers and checks & balances we've evolved -- a subordinate of the Executive. His duties to the people are derivative of the President's. Appropro of the recent and very useful Cass Sunstein post on the unitary executive: I'm one of those "strong unitary executive" guys he describes.

Lunch soon!

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