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Monica Goodling's not-totally-botched testimony

I get to the House Judiciary Committee room 20 minutes before ex-Department of Justice White House liaison Monica Goodling's hearing is set to begin, and the place is already a madhouse. Frenzied cameramen climb over people's laps and sprawl prostrate on the floor beneath Goodling's witness table, and there are no seats left--not even for press. Amid the chaos, a committee aide shoves me into a standing-room slot beside a gleeful, obese television producer. He is bellowing into his BlackBerry. "The news from the witness room," he says, "is that they removed the box of tissues from the witness stand!"

So somebody thought poor Monica Goodling was going to cry during her testimony. No surprise there. During the U.S. attorney scandal's long unraveling, the 33-year-old Regent Law School grad has developed a pitiable tripartite reputation: She's fragile--Justice official David Margolis told Congress that, in March, Goodling came into his office and sobbed for 30 to 45 minutes, and he told a colleague he feared for her emotional condition; stupid--Dahlia Lithwick called her "the Forrest Gump of no comments," a conclusion derived both from her retro Regent Law website (which includes original poetry: And smile, / the world can be a good place or a bad place, / depending on which way you look at it / But it's a lot better when you're smiling) and from her unwillingness to testify lest she incriminate herself; and robotically partisan--she allegedly asked applicants for nonpartisan Justice jobs questions like who their favorite president was and "Have you ever cheated on your wife?" Even Committee Chairman John Conyers seemed to assume this triple threat was destined for a sloppy breakdown. He shooed all the cameras away from the front of the witness table, and, when Goodling--looking demure in fresh blonde highlights and a slightly wrinkled, slightly bulky black suit--finally took the stand, he urged her in a soothing tone, "Nice loud voice."

But the sad truth is that Goodling--the shlump everybody, from Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty to low-level political appointees to the New York Times editorial page loved to blame--was more impressive in her hearing than the attorney general and his former chief of staff combined. Which isn't to say she was enlightening--after leaving the hearing, I still don't know why most of the eight U.S. attorneys were fired. But unlike Alberto "I don't recall" Gonzales and Kyle "I failed" Sampson, she was on topic and willing to point the finger. (The fifth paragraph of her opening statement was characteristically wham-bam-thank you ma'am: "I believe [Mcnulty] was not fully candid about his knowledge of White House involvement in the replacement decision, failed to disclose that he had some knowledge of the White House's interest in selecting Tim Griffin as the interim U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Arkansas, inaccurately described the department's internal assessment of the Parsky commission, and failed to disclose that he had some knowledge of allegations that Tim Griffin had been involved in vote- cadging during his work on the president's 2004 campaign.") She answered yes or no questions with yeses and nos. She had witty moments--responding to freshman Democrat Steve Cohen's question about the large number of Regents graduates working in the Bush administration, she said "I think we have a lot more people from Harvard and Yale." She even assumed the look of an embarrassed church girl when the House Republicans took their duty to protect and defend her to comic levels. During his questioning, Republican Darrell Issa--who competed with Dan Lungren and James Sensenbrenner for the prince-on-a-white-steed-here-to-rescue-Monica role--bellowed, "[Y]ou chose to be non-partisan very often." Goodling flushed and smiled a sad little smile.

"I'm afraid I don't have a comment on that," she said.

In fact, much of Goodling's testimony was strangely confessional. As for the accusation advanced at the hearing that she was inappropriately partisan at Justice, her answer was always an ashamed yes, father--I sinned. When Democrat Linda Sanchez asked her about the allegation that she blocked a talented Howard University Law graduate's hiring because she believed he was a liberal, she replied, "I think that when I did look at that resume I made a snap judgment, and I regret it." But most of the time, she added hastily, her mind was pure from these political considerations: "I don't feel like there were many cases where I had those thoughts." Lord, lead me not into temptation! Later, when Democrat Bobby Scott pressed her on how she vetted non-political Justice applicants, she returned to this spirit-was-willing-but-flesh-was-weak vein. "I know I crossed the line," Cshe said. "What line? Legal?" he asked. "[C]ivil service rules," she elaborated. "Rules? Laws," he intoned, with all the sternness of a priest. "I believe I crossed the lines, but I didn't mean to," she said.

So Goodling admitted she took an inappropriately politicized approach to her job. (Republican Bob Goodlatte: "Did you ever act as a screener for Republican candidates?" Goodling: "I probably did.") But where does that get us? We already knew she did, and she doesn't take anyone else at Justice down with her on that count. But she is ready to take down her bosses: McNulty's February 6 account of the attorney firings "was incomplete or inaccurate in a number of respects," she said, insisting that she reminded McNulty of things he said he hadn't been briefed on.

She didn't save her fire only for McNulty, either. In mid March, she testified, Gonzales asked to talk with her privately about her memories of the attorney firings--a request that didn't seem quite right to her. "I did not know if it was appropriate for us both to talk about that," she said. (As Salon pointed out, on April 19, Gonzales told the Senate, "I haven't talked to witnesses because of the fact that I haven't wanted to interfere with this investigation.") And, under questioning by Republican Elton Gallegly, she reconstructed a disturbing scene from the now-famous November 27 meeting about the firings in the AG's conference room. "Somebody said, 'I think I know why people are on this [termination] list, except for [Nevada Attorney] Daniel Bogden,'" she recounted. Goodling was aware of a couple of concerns she'd heard with Bogden, so she voiced them. She and Sampson "looked at the attorney general and said, 'What do you want to do [about Bogden]?' I think he nodded and said, 'OK.'"

[H]e nodded and said "OK"? The episode doesn't exactly instill confidence in anybody at the meeting, least of all the über-passive Gonzales. Goodling's testimony only reinforced the growing impression that nobody knew what anybody else was doing in Justice's top ranks, or why--and that nobody really cared about what they didn't know, either.

McNulty has already bitten back with a statement: "Ms. Goodling's characterization of my testimony is wrong and not supported by the extensive record of documents and testimony already provided to Congress." Her account is bound to rankle Gonzales, too, who is up for a no-confidence vote soon in the Senate--a body whose Republicans have not exhibited too much patience with his chronic passivity. But maybe all he needs is a change in attitude, the one recommended by his erstwhile underling Monica Goodling: [I]t's a lot better when you're smiling.