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The Flack Gap

Bush's flailing apologists.

In the wake of the fired-prosecutor scandal, I have become rather alarmed at the low quality of the pro-administration spin. I may note a supporter of this administration, but I am an American who wants his government to function well in all areas—including lacking, obfuscating, and misleading the public. There was a time when this administration's apologists were the envy of the world. We Americans could take pride in skilled manipulators of illogic like Ari Fleischer, who spun circles around the press, while our enemies had to make do with the clumsy, transparent lies of hacks like Baghdad Bob.

Today, however, the administration's spin is of the shoddiest quality, no better than that found in a Third World kleptocracy. Alberto Gonzales, who appears congenitally incapable of going five minutes without contradicting himself, has been such a disaster that even the fulltime war room devoted to straightening out his story can't adequately prepare him. "At a recent 'prep' for a prospective Sunday talk-show interview, Gonzales's performance was so poor that top aides scrapped any live appearances," reported Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff. Apparently, Gonzales "kept contradicting himself and 'getting his timeline confused,' said one participant."

And it's not just bureaucrats who have bungled the job. Like all good Republicans, the Bush administration has left much of the job of defending it to the free market. But the private sector apologists have been, if anything, even less convincing than their government counterparts.

The primary defense, unsurprisingly, has been mounted by The Wall Street Journal editorial page. Fired prosecutors are a slightly awkward subject for the Journal, whose editor waxed indignant over Bill Clinton's 1993 replacement of the U.S. attorneys. Perhaps hemmed in by this earlier stance, the Journal conceded that, in theory, it "would be genuine grounds for outrage ... if a U.S. attorney were dismissed to interfere with a specific prosecution, or to protect some crony." However, the editorial continued, while Clinton had done this, "there is no such evidence involving any of the eight Bush attorneys."

No such evidence? How bizarre. There was no evidence that Clinton had done anything like this, unless you consider the Journal’s preternatural suspicion of everything Clinton did to be "evidence.” With Bush, on the other hand, there's an enormous amount of evidence. So far, we know that New Mexico Republicans called prosecutor David Iglesias before last November's elections to urge him to indict Democrats on charges of voter fraud. When he refused, the chairman of the New Mexico GOP complained to Karl Rove. Rove, in turn, complained to the Justice Department about Iglesias. And, shortly after that, Iglesias was added to the list of prosecutors to be fired.

On top of that, you have lots of suspicious behavior lurking in the background. There is an e-mail from Gonzales's chief of staff explicitly judging prosecutors on the basis of whether they are “loyal Bushies." You have the Justice Department's shifting stories as to exactly why it had fired the prosecutors. And Rove's and Harriet Miers's insistence that their testimony on the matter be given in private—without taking an oath or a transcript, and with a promise of no further follow-up testimony if contradictions arise—is not the sort of behavior you'd expect from people who have nothing to hide.

And, on top of that, you have a lot of pretty suggestive facts. You have the fact that, since the Bush administration came to power, U.S. attorneys have investigated or indicted just 67 Republicans, compared with 298 Democrats. You have a spurious preelection conviction of a Democratic governor's appointee in Wisconsin that, after the election, was quickly and unanimously overturned by a three-judge panel featuring two Republican appointees. (The “evidence is beyond thin," declared one judge.) Then there was the fact that the U.S. attorney investigating Jack Abramoff's shady dealings with Guam was demoted the day after issuing his subpoena, thus halting the investigation. None of this is proof, but surely it’s evidence.

The Weekly Standard, meanwhile, has not even bothered to deny that there’s any evidence of scandal. Instead, it proceeded straight to the attack on motivation, asserting that Democrats in Congress are merely "trying to cripple [Bush's] ability to govern for the rest of his term." (The Journal concurred: Democrats just want to "rollup his Presidency two years early.") With any given scandal, it’s always possible to claim that the opposition is ginning up controversy to dent the president's popularity and stop his agenda. But it's best to save this argument for instances where the president’s popularity is above, say, 35 percent and he has at least the pretense of a domestic agenda.

On the side of sweet naivete comes The Washington Post editorial page, which, like a kind-hearted relative, keeps seeing the good side in that Bush kid no matter what trouble he gets himself into. "Mr. Gonzales finds himself in this mess," the Post recently mused, "because he and others in his shop appear to have tried to cover up something that, as far as we yet know, didn't need covering." So, the administration has told lie after lie for no real reason at all. I suppose it could be true. There may, however, be another explanation. Perhaps William of Occam would have something to say about this.

Are such prevarications the best a proud nation can do on behalf of its commander-in-chief? I say no. And, so, I have appointed myself to formulate a better defense of the administration's innocence. Ready? Here it is:

Most of this so-called "evidence" of the administration's guilt comes from the administration itself—specifically, e-mails released by the Justice Department. But the Bush administration is a completely untrustworthy source. Remember the last time it released information that seemed to show a nefarious government conspiracy? That's right: the Iraq WMD debacle. Why should we trust them now, when they steered us so wrong before? Liberals always say we shouldn't take information from the Bush administration at face value, but now they want to do just that. Hypocrites!

This article originally ran in the April 23, 2007 issue of the magazine.