Genial and mild-mannered yet insistently evasive, Alberto Gonzales yesterday did what tainted presidential nominees often do when facing a turbulent confirmation: He denied, denied, denied what everyone knows is true -- and he forgot everything else that might be inconvenient to remember.
Chosen to serve as attorney general by the newly reelected George W. Bush, and graced with an inspiring rise from working-class Latino poverty to the White House, the man known as "Judge Gonzales" was understandably confident that he would win approval by the Republican majority (and most Democrats) in the Senate. His only potential pitfall is the same personal characteristic that spurred his climb to prominence. Gonzales is a company man who always and instinctively provides the answers his boss wants to hear. Whether the subject is execution of a Texas felon or torture of foreign prisoners, he raises no discomforting issues and erases all embarrassing problems.
He is the kind of counselor that this president prizes most highly. He is the ultimate yes man.
Gonzales did his ingratiating best to "yes" all of his inquisitors at the Senate Judiciary Committee, too. He deplored the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, which have stained the honor of the United States. He denounced the use of torture and promised to prosecute any officer guilty of that offense. He endorsed the Geneva Conventions, traditional civil liberties, civil rights and even abortion rights as "the law of the land."
What Gonzales did not do, however, was dispel the doubts about his role in crafting the Bush administration policies that have permitted and even encouraged abuse of prisoners. He carefully distanced himself from the notorious "torture memo" of Aug. 1, 2002, authored by Jay Bybee who then served in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel and is now a federal judge. The Bybee memo defined "torture" to mean only the most extreme pain comparable with "organ failure or death." As Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., noted Thursday, it served as the template for an official Pentagon document that later blurred legal prohibitions against such practices.
Asked repeatedly whether he had endorsed the Bybee opinion, Gonzales insisted that it wasn't his job to shape or even comment on legal memoranda from the Justice Department. His only purpose was to transmit the opinion, which he had requested, to the president. Rather implausibly, he claimed not to recall whether he agreed with Bybee's views at the time -- and he noted that the memo was withdrawn (after it was leaked to the press). Indeed, the Justice Department officially withdrew the Bybee memorandum last week, in an act traditionally known on Capitol Hill as a "confirmation conversion."
The nominee's bland evasions conform perfectly to his role as the yes man of the torture scandal. As White House counsel, Gonzales convened meetings to deliberate on the issue, and according to the Washington Post, he purposely excluded lawyers from the State Department and the Army who might dissent from such radical findings -- as they eventually did with great vehemence. Again, Gonzales knew what his boss wanted and he delivered.
This yes-man routine requires an intimate knowledge of the boss's preferences and prejudices. It functions most smoothly when someone like Gonzales can sweep away any awkward facts and dissenting opinion. Exactly how this process works was revealed in a brief exchange between Gonzales and Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who asked him about legal briefs he had prepared for then-Gov. Bush on death-penalty cases in Texas. Specifically, Feingold asked about an infamous case concerning an inmate whose court-appointed attorney had mostly slept during his trial. The dozing lawyer was central to the convict's appeal and remained highly pertinent up to the day he was executed. Yet somehow the governor's counsel had omitted any mention of that issue in his brief on the man's request for a stay of execution, which Bush of course rejected.
Gonzales said he couldn't recall the details of that case or whether he might have mentioned the sleeping lawyer to his boss. But the obvious truth was that this faithful servant knew his master's preferences. He was well aware that the boss wouldn't care and didn't want to know.
The capacity to ignore unpleasant realities is fundamental to this role. During his seven hours of testimony, Gonzales repeatedly proved how adeptly he pretends to not see what everyone knows is there. Despite voluminous accounts of torture and even homicide inflicted on prisoners in Guantánamo, Afghanistan and Iraq, he suggested that the entire problem is no more widespread or serious than a few poorly supervised soldiers on the "night shift" at Abu Ghraib. And he accepted no responsibility for what he had set in motion by undermining the application of the Geneva Conventions and traditional military observance of international law.
Perhaps the most eloquent rebuke to the Gonzales method came from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who once served in the Army's Judge Advocate General Corps. On this matter, Graham speaks like a true conservative, expressing the outrage felt by so many military officers at the disgrace inflicted on their institution by Bush, Gonzales and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
The South Carolina senator warned that "when you start looking at torture statutes and you look at ways around the spirit of the law, you're losing the moral high ground." He added that "once you start down this road it is very hard to come back. So I do believe we have lost our way, and my challenge to you as a leader of this nation is to help us find our way without giving up our obligation and right to fight our enemy."
The passive Gonzales has shown no sign of providing that kind of leadership, and he never will. He has done the opposite for his entire career, but no matter. The Judiciary Committee will vote to confirm him, as will the full Senate. And whatever laws, rights and traditions the president may wish to eviscerate in his second term, there will be an attorney general who can be depended upon to say yes.