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You're Fired!

Maybe Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing would have gone better if he and the senators had worked out one major misunderstanding beforehand. In Gonzales's trial to keep his job today, the senators--seated in a giant hearing room filled with hot-pink-clad protesters waving pocket constitutions--clearly understood Gonzales to be the defendant. The attorney general, however, seemed to believe he had been called as an expert forensic witness.

Throughout the hearing, Gonzales displayed an odd dissociation from his job as head of the Justice Department, often behaving more as though he was a diligent inspector general called in to analyze what had happened rather than someone who had made things happen himself. "The fact that Mr. [David] Iglesias appeared on the [firings] list doesn't surprise me," he told Chairman Patrick Leahy, as though he'd just completed a departmental audit. When Kansan Sam Brownback asked him to explain the rationale behind Nevada U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden's dismissal, he said that "it appears there were concerns about the level of energy," like he'd come from some fact-finding staff interviews. As the clock ticked on, Gonzales's self-transformation from Cabinet member to impartial observer threatened to become a full-blown identity crisis: "I now understand I was involved in a conversation with the president," he said at the end of a spat with Arlen Specter. Reporters glanced around in confusion, perhaps imagining what it was like when the two different I's Gonzales had just referred to talked to each other in the privacy of his own home, one in a low voice, one in a high, squeaky one. Specter, who--like an exasperated parent--had just finished berating Gonzales for not taking his advice about how to prepare for the hearing, simply leaned back in his seat and shook his head. Boy, the look on his face said. Have I raised a screw-up.

Coming from a Republican, this look was especially bad. While the Democrats on the committee (Chuck Schumer and talented Rhode Island freshman Sheldon Whitehouse, in particular) dutifully and effectively laid into Gonzales--for corruption, politicizing the department, and covering up the scandal--they didn't turn up any smoking guns, so their frustration wasn't his biggest immediate problem. They would (rightly) have opposed him regardless of his performance. Gonzales's real nightmare now was his own party: The Republican senators should have been easy to placate, since they don't believe the firings were politically motivated; their concern was over how the firings' were handled--and over Gonzales's competence--so all the attorney general needed to do was show them he still controlled the Justice Department enough to remain its chief. (Lingering Republican support would have at least allowed the White House to blame Democratic partisans for dissatisfaction with Gonzales.) But, instead of presenting himself as self-assured, Gonzales portrayed a man just beginning to understand the goings-on of his agency. And so Republican senators--the president's weather balloons--began to betray him.

There were three attitudes the committee Republicans could have taken toward Gonzales, a member of the government they confirmed themselves, who now sat below their dais like a child who'd done wrong: They could have played the part of the proud and defensive parent (modeled on that type of father who simply refuses to believe, when confronted by the guidance counselor, that his son could possibly have cherry-bombed the school toilet), the stern parent, or the parent who disowns his child entirely. Senator Orrin Hatch, a steadfast supporter of Gonzales throughout the U.S. attorneys ordeal, took the first tack, lobbing Gonzales softball questions that allowed him to explain why he thought the firings were appropriate. But, aside from Specter (who played the stern parent), Republicans on the committee disowned Gonzales. That bodes worse for the attorney general than the toughest inquisition Schumer could have delivered.

Things started to get bad when Texas's John Cornyn, a staunch defender of the Bush administration if ever there was one, began his round of questioning by saying, "I believe you are a good and decent man, but the way this has been handled is deplorable." Cornyn still tried to give Gonzales a break by suggesting the real problem was a relatively small one--the department's characterization of the firings as "performance-related." But the attorney general couldn't own up even to that: He has too much pride to embrace his former chief of staff's bizarrely successful "I'm a failure" defense. Instead, Gonzales hotly insisted that the performance characterization was fair. So, as well as isolating himself from his department's missteps, Gonzales was not even as contrite as he was supposed to be: Cornyn worked his lips in disapproval, a frown furrowing on his high forehead.

They got worse with the next Republican, Alabama's solidly conservative Jeff Sessions, who pressed Gonzales on his claim that he didn't remember a crucial November 27 meeting on the firings that his deputies have said he attended. "This was not that long ago," Sessions said in a dry, slightly bemused voice that is a classic warning sign of impending disownment. Gonzales attempted a Scooter Libby defense--that he has a bad memory--but Sessions just rolled his eyes. He's had enough of that one.

But it was Lindsey Graham who finally turned the screw. Graham, with his Beaver Cleaverish gleaming face, apple cheeks, and fine-combed hair, hardly seems the type to play executioner. But, as he pressed Gonzales on alleged lies to Arkansas Democrat Mark Pryor (about fired U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins), Graham was all incredulous head shakes, smirks, and frowns. He even shot knowing looks at an unbelievable new ally--Chuck Schumer, who is usually conservative public enemy number-one. Schumer slung his arm confidently across the empty chair behind him, and he didn't even try to keep a big grin off his face. "My basic problem here is ... you didn't have any ownership of the process," Graham said. "Is it fair to say that, when you made the final decision, it was made more on trust of your team than it was on knowledge?" "I think that's a fair statement," Gonzales admitted. "Your justification [for the firings] comes down to, 'These are not the right people at the right time,'" Graham went on, referring to Gonzales's claim that his staff just wanted to give other people a chance. Graham leaned forward. "If I applied that standard to you, what would you say?" That's right: Lindsey Graham, in a final repudiation of classic Bush loyalty, suggested that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales should be summarily canned in the exact same way as the U.S. attorneys he fired. An eye for an eye.

The damage was done. Republican Senator Tom Coburn latched onto Graham's formulation, asking Gonzales in a withering tone, "Why would we not use the same standards to judge your performance as you used to judge these dismissed U.S. attorneys?" Gonzales, by then, was abject: "That's a fair question." Coburn went on, "I believe there are consequences to mistakes. ... I believe you ought to suffer the consequences these [U.S. attorneys] have suffered," he says. And then, right to Gonzales's face: "I believe the best way to put this behind us is your resignation."

Maybe there's an opening in the inspector general's office.