By Eugene Robinson
WASHINGTON—It’s way past bedtime for Gonzo. At this point, every day Alberto Gonzales continues as attorney general means more dishonor for the office and the nation—and higher blood pressure for Senate Judiciary Committee members trying desperately to get a straight answer out of the man.
Gonzo has managed to do something no one else in Washington has managed in years: create a spirit of true bipartisanship. After his pathetic act in front of the committee Tuesday, it’s no surprise that Democrats are threatening to investigate him for perjury. But it was Sen. Arlen Specter, a Republican, who looked Gonzo in the face and told him, “I do not find your testimony credible, candidly.”
Specter seems ready to pop a gasket. “The hearing two days ago was devastating” for Gonzo, Specter said Thursday. “But so was the hearing before that, and so was the hearing before that.”
Over time, one becomes almost numb to this administration’s relentless lies and can-you-top-this transgressions. A kind of “outrage fatigue” sets in, accompanied by the knowledge that whatever it is that they’ve done this time, it could have been worse.
So when George W. Bush rewrote history the other day by saying that “al-Qaida terrorists killed Americans on 9/11 [and] they’re fighting us in Iraq,” the tendency is to duly note that the president is not telling the truth—there is no evidence whatsoever that al-Qaida in Iraq, which didn’t exist at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, takes orders from Osama bin Laden—and then move on. Hey, at least it’s just talk. At least he didn’t invade Iran or Pakistan. Yet.
For me, at least, Gonzo is the perfect antidote to midsummer apathy. The guy is ... I was going to say the guy’s unbelievable, but I’d just be repeating the bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill.
What set the senators a-sputtering was Gonzo’s testimony about the night in 2004 when he showed up at the hospital bedside of his predecessor, John Ashcroft, to try to get him to overrule his deputy and reauthorize Bush’s secret program of warrantless electronic eavesdropping. The Justice Department had concluded, most inconveniently for the White House, that the program as then constituted was illegal.
James Comey, the former Ashcroft deputy who intercepted Gonzo in Ashcroft’s hospital room, revealed that incident in gripping testimony earlier this year. But Gonzo had previously told Congress that there was no “serious disagreement” within the administration over the surveillance program.
Kind of a conflict there.
Asked about the glaring discrepancy, Gonzo said Tuesday that the disagreement and the hospital visit were about “other intelligence activities,” and “not about the terrorist surveillance program that the president announced to the American people.”
Specter’s response: “Mr. Attorney General, do you expect us to believe that?”
No one believes it. The most generous interpretation is that Gonzo, fearful of facing a perjury rap, is insisting on an artificially and dishonestly narrow definition of “the terrorist surveillance program that the president announced”—leaving out “intelligence activities” that any reasonable person, including Comey, would consider part of the program. The nice word for that would be dissembling.
The not-so-nice word would be lying. Hence the call Thursday by a group of Senate Democrats for a perjury investigation.
I hope they nail him. Anyone tempted to feel sympathy for Gonzo should check out his weaselly explanations of why he would think it appropriate to buttonhole a sick man in his hospital room, regardless of the issue.
“There are no rules governing whether or not General Ashcroft can decide ‘I’m feeling well enough to make this decision,’ ” Gonzo said. When Specter pointed out that Ashcroft had already turned his powers over to Comey, Gonzo replied, “And he could always reclaim that. There are no rules. ...”
“While he’s in the hospital under sedation?” Specter interrupted, before giving up on getting a straight answer.
Gonzo answered the question, all right—inadvertently, of course: “There are no rules.”
That’s the guiding philosophy of this administration. As far as these people are concerned, there are no rules of common decency. There are no rules of customary practice. There are no rules governing respect for the truth, or even respect for the privacy and health of an ailing colleague.
And we all know who sets that tone.
Sen. Chuck Schumer tried valiantly to get Gonzo to say who sent him on that Mafia-movie errand to the hospital. Gonzo’s a loyal soldier; he wouldn’t snitch. All Schumer got out of him was that the visit was “on behalf of the president of the United States.”
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group