By Bill Boyarsky
So far, ugly reality has not pierced the fanciful world of Republican presidential candidates. It’s as if there is no unwinnable war, no George Bush, no Alberto Gonzales and no 2006 election that thoroughly repudiated the party.
There was no better proof of this than on Thursday, May 3. That night, the candidates had sort of a debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in the solidly Republican Simi Valley in Southern California. But earlier that day in Washington, something much more important occurred: reality, coming from a former top official in the Bush administration’s Justice Department.
James B. Comey was department second in command from 2003 through most of 2005. He testified before a House Judiciary subcommittee looking into the case of the eight U.S. attorneys who were fired by the White House and the Justice Department.
Comey was a straight-arrow prosecutor who, Vanessa Blum noted in Legal Times, upset the White House by refusing to play politics when he hired attorneys for the Justice Department.
His most famous hire was Patrick Fitzgerald, a U.S. attorney whom he appointed special prosecutor in the Valerie Plame case. The unrelenting Fitzgerald pursued the case into the highest levels of the Bush administration, finishing with the conviction of “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s top aide. When the president, as expected, did not appoint Comey A.G. after John Ashcroft left, Comey moved on and is now general counsel for Lockheed Martin.
Just a few hours before the Simi Valley debate began, Comey praised six of the fired eight, including David Iglesias of New Mexico and John McKay of Washington state. The Bush administration fired both men because they refused to bend to local Republican politicians who demanded they prosecute phony voter registration fraud cases.
Iglesias, he said, was “very straight, very able.” McKay, he said, “was one of my favorites.” He said he was “inspired” by McKay’s work. And, in an e-mail released by the subcommittee, Comey told another of the fired U.S. attorneys, H.E. Cummins III of Arkansas: “You’re a good man and have handled this maelstrom with great dignity. Watching it causes me great pain, for the USAs [U.S. attorneys], whom I respect, and the Department, which I love. Regardless, I will not sit by and watch good people smeared. What’s that quotation about all that’s necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to remain silent?”
Silence describes what the Republican candidates had to say about this. Nothing. I guess that if I were still a mainstream journalist, I would explain this to my readers in a calm, neutral, analytical way, concluding that it made sense for the so-called debaters to ignore the scandal. But I don’t do that anymore. I wanted to know what they would do about the Justice Department. Would the next attorney general be a James Comey or an Alberto Gonzalez?
Unfortunately, the moderators, Chris Matthews of MSNBC and John F. Harris of The Politico, didn’t ask that perfectly relevant question. Instead, they let the candidates pretty much ignore the failures of the Bush administration and the unfavorable verdict the voters rendered on the president in the 2006 election. They also permitted the candidates to wrap themselves in the Ronald Reagan story—and to get it wrong.
As I watched the candidates talking about Reagan, I was reminded of the talking Abraham Lincoln replica I used to watch at Disneyland. It was Lincoln as Disney wanted him to be, with his words shaped to reflect Walt’s right-wing politics. The Republican candidates were like Disney, creating a Reagan in their own image, a caricature conservative, hard right on social issues and on relations with the rest of the world.
That was evident when the candidates talked about federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, something strongly supported by a prominent member of the debate audience, Nancy Reagan. Most were opposed. Only Sen. John McCain and Rudolph Giuliani supported such funding. On abortion, only Giuliani was supportive. “I hate abortion,” he said. But he added, “You have to respect a woman’s right to make that choice differently than my conscience.”
Reagan view’s was practical, and he flip-flopped depending on the situation. As governor of socially liberal California, Reagan signed a bill permitting abortions. As president, he advocated a constitutional amendment that would have prohibited all abortions. But he always declined to appear at the annual pro-life rally in Washington, speaking instead by phone. “While I do not doubt Reagan’s sincerity in advocating an anti-abortion amendment, he invested few political resources toward obtaining this goal and it was not a high priority of those close to him,” wrote Reagan biographer Lou Cannon.
It’s all but forgotten now, but Reagan, before becoming president, came out in his newspaper column against an anti-gay measure on the California ballot. He and Nancy were actors and undoubtedly had gay colleagues. His words sent the measure down to defeat. Reagan signed a huge tax increase as governor. And whereas the Bush administration hates to talk to any government hostile to us, President Reagan worked with Mikhail Gorbachev to end the Cold War.
For all his failings, Reagan’s view of the world was pragmatic. Another prominent Republican member of the debate audience, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, has done pretty well with the same kind of instincts.
This is the world most of America lives in. The Republican candidates should take a look at it.