Let me offer a word in defense of Alberto R. Gonzales now that a majority of U.S. senators, including six Republicans, are poised to demand his resignation as the nation’s top law enforcement officer. The breaking point was last week’s revelation by former Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey that Gonzales paid a rude nighttime visit to then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft’s intensive-care hospital room.

The goal of bursting into the hospital and alarming Ashcroft’s wife, in a scene reminiscent of “The Godfather,” was to obtain the signature of the semiconscious attorney general upon a document renewing an electronic eavesdropping program that Ashcroft’s Justice Department had concluded was not legal. Gonzales had lied about this secret program in Senate testimony when he claimed that it was not regarded as controversial within the administration; actually, it was so controversial that officials at Justice, from the attorney general to the FBI director, had threatened to resign in protest if it were renewed.

But don’t blame Gonzales; he’s just another lightweight zealot exploited by the Cheney White House. Not that Gonzales isn’t a thoroughly loathsome character deserving of Senate rebuke and worse. He has been party to dragging this nation down in the eyes of the world, ordering and justifying torture while shredding the limitations on imperious governance that have been the hallmark of American liberty. Yet while the man has been associated with a pernicious assault on our freedoms, he has never been the independent actor, but rather a dutiful toady carrying out the wishes of a tightly monitored White House with the blessings of the president.

That Gonzales was doing the Bush administration’s bidding, authorized on the highest level, was well documented in last week’s Senate hearing. Gonzales was accompanied by then White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card in his nighttime assault on Ashcroft’s hospital room — a surprise visit which, according to Comey’s testimony, was most likely facilitated by a call from the president to Ashcroft’s wife, who stood in frightened vigil over her husband’s semicomatose body. After a suddenly alert Ashcroft managed to lift his head from the pillow and condemn their chicanery before lapsing back into semiconsciousness, it was Card who ordered Comey to go immediately to the White House that night for a dressing down for opposing the president. And President Bush had a private meeting with Comey the next morning to prevent his imminent resignation, as well as that of the head of the FBI and other top Justice Department officials, including Ashcroft.

In the most damning moment of his testimony, Comey recounted how Ashcroft’s wife, who had banned all visitors from her husband’s room, called the attorney general’s chief of staff, alarmed that she had received a call from the White House informing her that Gonzales and Card were on their way to the hospital. “I was very upset,” Comey recalled. “I thought I had just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man.” When asked if he had an idea where the call came from, Comey testified: “I have some recollection that the call was from the president himself, but I don’t know that for sure. It came from the White House.” In any case, the president clearly didn’t disapprove of Gonzales’ tactics, because he subsequently promoted him to attorney general.

Comey was a highly respected prosecutor before being appointed by Bush to the No. 2 spot at the Justice Department. It should have alarmed Bush that Comey was so worried about Gonzales’ thuggish behavior that he asked FBI Director Robert Mueller to instruct his agents at the hospital not to allow Gonzales to remove Comey from the room, and that Comey would not meet with the White House staff after this incident unless Solicitor General Theodore Olson was present as a witness.

Having researched and written scenes for Oliver Stone’s movie “Nixon,” a devastating portrait of what we then presumed was the low point in the history of the American presidency, I can well predict the good use that a future screenwriter will make of this hospital scene to document the frightening reality, first effectively outlined in a book by John Dean, that the assault on American representative democracy during the Bush years has been “Worse Than Watergate.” Dean was the White House counsel who broke with Nixon over that president’s betrayal of the U.S. Constitution and who revealed the truth in a subsequent Senate hearing. By contrast, as Bush’s counsel, Gonzales eagerly abetted White House crime, lied to the Senate and was rewarded for that behavior. The real culprit here, as in Watergate, is the president of the United States.

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