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Standing General

Alberto Gonzales: petulant, embarrassing, triumphant

Washington scandals have life spans. Like the life spans of human beings, vigorous and careful nourishment can lengthen them, but fundamentally they are determined by some mysterious, deep-hidden genetic code. At a certain point--often when they are just beginning to open into the full bloom of all they have to offer--they just start to wither and fade.

Sitting in this morning's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, it was clear that we are well into the U.S. attorney scandal's geriatric decline. The press tables were half empty. Senators trickled in late. Chairman Patrick Leahy, who rarely forgoes an opportunity to present his speeches with the full bombast of an ancient tragedian, mouthed his stock opener without any gusto. Gonzales, for his part, looked cheerful, shaking hands and laughing with Democratic Senator Ben Cardin. Even the protesters seemed less on point. At the last Gonzo hearing, riotous people dressed in attorney general masks and prison uniforms jockeyed to get into the room. Today, however, the main protester I noticed--an immaculately dressed, mournful-eyed man standing silently amid the onlookers--held up a sign that had little to do (at least, we hope) with the matter at hand: FBI, it read. STOP RAPING MY WIFE.

The decline in the Justice flap's power to shock and draw interest is a major shame, because so much more information has come out since Gonzales's last appearance on the Hill. Former Justice peon Monica Goodling has revealed that Gonzales probably tried to coach her testimony. Former Deputy Attorney General James Comey's told an unexpected and bizarre tale of Gonzales and then-White House Chief of Staff Andy Card rushing at night to the bedside of sedated, post-surgical then-Attorney General John Ashcroft to try to get him to sign off on an intelligence issue (according to some, the warrantless surveillance program) other top Justice officials had decided was illegal. And now we have a Washington Post story revealing that the board meant to oversee intelligence abuses quietly went out of existence during Bush's first term. Today would have been a better moment than April to haul Gonzales before the eyes of the world for the first time, because for him to answer the question "Do you think you should still be attorney general?" in the affirmative now is just so much more insane.

Republican Senator Arlen Specter, actually, was the one committee member who really brought home the stark change in Gonzales's circumstances. The Democrats on the committee have always been hard on Gonzales, but, at the last hearing, Specter treated the attorney general like a concerned parent would a child: critically, but gently. Today, however, he threw the book at the Attorney General. "It seems to me this is decimating, Mr. Attorney General, to your credibility," he told Gonzales in his opening remarks. "Is your department functioning?" he shouted. "Do you review these matters?" Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein was in awe. "In my time in the Senate I have never heard comments like that coming from both sides of the aisle," she said. If there was any doubt as to whether Specter was the hero of the hearing, consider this withering exchange:

GONZALES: The visit to the hospital was about other issues. It was not the terrorist surveillance issue.

SPECTER: Do you expect us to believe that?

GONZALES: ... Mr. Comey had advised us that we could not get approval for vitally important antiterrorism acts.

SPECTER: How could you get approval from Ashcroft for anything?

GONZALES: Can I continue my story?


GONZALES (increasingly irritated, shaking his fist): He could always reclaim [his authority]. There are no rules for that ... He could always reclaim it--

SPECTER: When he's sedated?!

At moments under the onslaught, Gonzales's voice thickened up, and he looked like he might cry--but angry-little-boy tears, not an adult's tears of mortification and regret. His testimony in response to all the new allegations was a mix of defiant petulance (of the sort he displayed with Specter) and earnest bewilderment. When Feinstein brought up the mysterious removal of the line "Most, if not all, investigations of election fraud must wait until after the election" from the handbook for federal election-fraud prosecutions this May--that is, after the whole U.S. attorney scandal blew up--Gonzales eagerly replied, "I would like the opportunity to look into it and get back to you," as though it had absolutely no relationship with the disturbing fact that obeying that very line was what got at least two of the U.S. attorneys fired. When Senator Ted Kennedy passed around copies of a 2006 department memo that questionably expanded the allowed interactions between Justice officials and White House officials, Gonzales furrowed his brow and said, "On its face, sitting here, I'm troubled by this," as though he had never seen it before. But he wrote the memo. His signature was right there.

That Gonzales wants to remain attorney general to heal the department he screwed up so badly--an idea he put forth many times at the hearing--is the apotheosis of the audacity displayed in these smaller episodes. He's already weathered the worst of this scandal, and he knows he probably won't go now. And so Gonzales was neither defensive, as most political types tend to be when under attack, nor contrite. He just appeared to be entirely without shame. Like the broken mole in a Whack-A-Mole console, no matter how many blows he receives, he maintains his infuriatingly rigid smile and won't go down. In this he recalls Bush during Katrina, Rumsfeld during Iraq, Cheney--well, Cheney all the time. In the end, I think this peculiarly uniform immunity to feelings of shame or remorse will stand as this administration's defining trait.

For now, though, Gonzales's weird imperviousness to attacks robs those attacks of their delicious appeal. I understood the Justice Department scandal fatigue that has set in these days when freshman Senator Sheldon Whitehouse delivered perhaps the single best line of the day, referring to the fact that FBI Director Robert Mueller asked FBI agents to physically prevent Gonzales from kicking James Comey out of Ashcroft's hospital room, apparently for fear that Comey was the only thing standing in the way of Gonzales wholly strong-arming Ashcroft. "When the FBI director considers you so nefarious that FBI agents were instructed not to leave you alone with the stricken attorney general, that's pretty serious," Whitehouse said. Ouch. But because didn't seem to faze Gonzales, it actually wasn't that funny or cutting. It was just pitiful.

Gonzales has been able to absorb everything. There's no real satisfaction to be had until either he's impeached or the cops come in January 2009 and drag him howling from his office. And that fact makes these endless hearings--not just Gonzales's, but Sara Taylor's and Monica Goodling's and the battles over whether or not Harriet Miers and Karl Rove will testify--seem righteous, but also futile, and therefore kind of a waste of time. Outside the hearing room, a young woman in a black suit complained to a colleague about the difficulty of keeping the cameras trained on the Senators. "They're moving a lot," she lamented. "They always move a lot. Today they're angry, so they're really moving a lot." But amid all this flailing around, does anything really get moved?