May 7, 2007
The Unbearable Lightness of Alberto Gonzales
Last night I saw upon the stair
A little man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away.
–William Hughes Mearns
One of the most intriguing aspects of the controversy over the firing of the eight U.S. attorneys has been—at best the translucence, often the invisibility—of the man who, one would have thought, would be at the center of it, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Despite his televised testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Gonzales remains, as he has been throughout the controversy, almost invisible. It isn’t just his pathological memory failures. It was that, in whatever account you looked—the thousands of emails, the testimony of his chief of staff, even Gonzales’s own story—it was hard to see a reflection or even a shadow of Gonzales himself.
It’s like the scene in the Marx Brothers’ Night at the Opera in which Groucho’s character, Otis Driftwood, is fired from his no-show job at an opera company. “We have decided,” says the company’s director, “to dispense with your services.” “Dispense with my services?” retorts Groucho. “You haven’t even had them.”
Gonzales was almost invisible in the successive tranches of emails and other documents that have emanated from the Bush Administration. For people who claim that they had every right to do what they did but who seemed determined to keep it secret, the strategizers plotting the move put an awful lot into writing. Yet even in these internal documents, Gonzales stays offstage, rarely referred to, almost never seen.
After the story broke, Gonzales made a few brief and unilluminating statements, and then disappeared again, traveling around the country, meeting in private with US Attorneys’ staffs.
He returned to Washington, but remained unseen, said to be closeted with advisers, preparing for several weeks for what he assumed would be a rough going-over by the Judiciary Committee. Many who watched his performance saw little evidence of intense preparation. I suspect, though, that what Gonzales spent all that time preparing for was not providing a detailed account of the events that surrounded the dismissals, but to avoid giving any significant information at all without risking contempt of Congress charges.
Before the Committee, Gonzales was a hard witness to read. His repeated memory lapses were presented in a deferential manner. But there seemed to be something behind the veil of deference: disdain, perhaps, maybe hostility, even aggression. He reminded me of the literary character whose name has come to stand for a person whose veneer of humility insufficiently masks malign aggression—Uriah Heep in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. As it happens, Gonzales was born in a Texas town that is spelled “Humble” but pronounced “umble;” which happens to be the way Uriah Heep pronounces humble. “We’re so very umble,” Uriah tells David Copperfield. “And having such a knowledge of our own umbleness, we must really take care that we’re not pushed to the wall by them as isn’t umble.”
Could Gonzales’s non-responsive responses have been part of a deliberate strategy? Could the vague, out-of-the-loop persona he presented to the Committee and the public, be a disguise for a decisive identity revealed only behind closed doors—like the Ronald Reagan character in the Saturday Night Live sketch about Reagan’s claim that he knew little about the details of the Iran-Contra scandal: a benevolent but dim figure in public, but crisp and commanding behind closed doors?
Or could it be, as suggested by Dahlia Lithwick in Slate and Jon Stewart on Bill Moyers’ Journal on PBS, that Gonzales’ unresponsiveness was a deliberate tactic, that under the Bush administration’s “unitary executive” philosophy, they didn’t think they were obligated to tell Congress anything and weren’t afraid who knew it. But if they really thought they had every right to do what they did, why would they not have announced it and be done with it? Why invite scrutiny by such obvious dissimulation?
In fact, just such a point has been pressed by conservatives and the Washington Post, who say that the administration’s error was in trying to cover up something that didn’t need to be covered up. That argument assumes that all the administration had to fear was being found guilty of a law violation. As long as they didn’t risk being fitted for stripes, they had nothing to worry about.
Prison is not the only thing, not even the biggest thing, that politicians fear. In this case, they may have feared not prosecution but the public disapproval they are now suffering. Only part of the negative public reaction to all of this has been to Gonzales’s cluelessness and the assumption that such a major effort at deception could only have been undertaken to conceal a major misdeed. The other part has been distaste at the blatantly political motivation for the dismissals; exactly the reaction that blatantly political dismissals would have engendered if they had been announced forthrightly. Disapprobation may not lead to prison, but in a way it is more damaging than a charge of criminal misconduct. Criminal charges could be buried under a mountain of process that would delay accountability until the Bush administration left office or until people lost interest, whichever came first. Public disapproval has hit immediately.
At this writing, Gonzales is still at his post in the Justice Department, kept in place by President Bush’s loyalty and, perhaps, by the knowledge that if Gonzales goes, the Senate might refuse to confirm anyone but a person of stature and reputation, someone who might not step out of the way when political dirty work needed to be done.
But if Bush does decide to dispense with Gonzales’s service, or if Gonzales decides to dispense with his own services and step aside, there is the risk that someone might react to Gonzales’ departure the way Dorothy Parker did to the death of former president Calvin Coolidge. Informed that the famously taciturn and, since his departure from the White House, reclusive Coolidge had died, Parker replied: “How could they tell?”
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Dahlia Lithwick’s full explication in Slate of her theory that Gonzales’ testimony was “a tour de force, a home run for the president’s overarching theory of the unitary executive,” is here.