Gonzales' Fan Club of One

Alberto Gonzales' performance today prompted bipartisan condemnation. But his job may be more secure than ever.

Published April 20, 2007 1:37AM (EDT)

I was able to watch the afternoon session only in isolated segments, so until I'm able to watch the entire session and/or read a transcript, I will leave the line-by-line dissection of Gonzales' testimony to others. But I did see enough of the testimony and read enough reactions to warrant the following two points:

(1) Although Gonzales began with a combative tone, he quickly abandoned it, because it is not his natural approach. He has neither the instincts nor the abilities to engage in a full day of verbal combat with anyone. He is far more comfortable with highly practiced, slippery, evasive buzzphrases which he simply repeats -- with a psuedo-respectful and borderline-smug tone -- over and over and over. And he quickly reverted to form.

It was apparent by the end that most of the Committee members, even including traditionally stalwart Bush-supporting Republicans (other than the blindly loyal Hatch and Cornyn), did not believe what Gonzales was saying and were not going to defend him vigorously (in fact, Coburn expressly called for him to resign and Graham all but accused Gonzales of being untruthful, labelling his key explanations a "stretch"). And the Judiciary Committee Democrats were far more emboldened and aggressive than they ever were before at one of these Gonzales hearings. So those are all encouraging signs, I suppose.

But it is hard not to have some mixed feelings over all of that, because what Alberto Gonzales did today -- and what he has done in this scandal since its inception -- is what he has been doing for the last six years, and particularly, during the last two years during his tenure as Attorney General. He has repeatedly lied to Congress, evaded their questions, concealed wrongdoing, expressed contempt for oversight and checks, particularly when it comes to the actions of the Leader, whom -- even as Attorney General -- he still plainly sees as his client and whose interests are his paramount, really his only, priority.

That is what Alberto Gonzales is -- he is a supremely loyal servant of George Bush and he was installed as the nation's chief law enforcement officer precisely because of that attribute. There really is very little he would not do, if there is anything, in service to the White House. And that has been evident for quite some time.

Nor is there anything unique about Gonzales himself. His conduct is the conduct of this administration, and his mindset is its mindset. The U.S. Attorneys scandal is merely illustrative, not unique in any way -- except that Bush's weakened state and subpoena power in the hands of Democrats have combined to produce slightly more oversight and scrutiny than before.

So it was gratifying, I suppose, to watch Alberto Gonzales finally be held accountable (at least rhetorically) and aggressively cornered due to his transparent evasions and untruths. But it is also difficult to avoid lamenting how many other times over the last several years he has done all of that with complete impunity. And it is far from clear whether there will be real accountablity even now.

Gonzales is a mere symbol -- really just an instrument -- of an entire Presidency guided for years by exactly these behaviors. And, at least thus far, they have engaged in that conduct with very, very few consequences.

(2) With any other president, Gonzales' departure would be a fait accompli. Even National Review's Byron York called Gonzales' morning testimony "disastrous," while CNN reported all sorts of extreme criticisms coming from unnamed White House aides.

But -- historically at least -- this President does not fire people under pressure. When political pressures are exerted on Bush, he does the opposite of what is demanded of him -- for no reason except to defy the requests of others. As but one example, the endless and years-long demands from many circles that Donald Rumsfeld be fired by itself ensured that Rumsfeld remained, until he was days away from becoming the longest-serving Defense Secretary in our nation's history.

Bush fires those who are disloyal. Those who are subservient and loyal are never fired, no matter their level of incompetence or corruption. Roughly a month ago, Chuck Schumer went on CNN's Late Edition and called for Gonzales' resignation and, in response, Lindsey Graham said: "I think the fact that Senator Schumer asked for him to step down means he won't."

That is how Bush works. If someone demands that Bush take action, he will petulantly refuse simply to demonstrate that he does not comply with anyone else's will. He is The Decider, nobody else, and nothing is more important than for him to demonstrate that. And loyalty to the Leader is valued infinitely higher than either integrity or competence, which are not remotely required for positions in the administration.

Consider the 2006 midterm elections -- a truly crushing blow to Bush's party and a resounding repudiation of his policies. The natural reaction for a normal person would be to re-assess what they did to lead them so astray. But in response to that election, Bush did the exact opposite -- he purged his administration still further of "dissidents," of anyone who demonstrated any independence, precisely in order to demonstrate that he would never listen to anyone else and to re-emphasize just how right he has been.

In December, 2006, The Washington Post's Dan Froomkin reviewed the post-midterm election ouster of several key Bush officials and concluded that it was driven by a "purge of the unbelievers." Froomkin cited Harriet Miers as White House counsel ("never a true believer in Vice President Cheney's views of a nearly unrestrained executive branch"), Iraq Ambassador Zalmay Khalizad ("considered by Cheney to be too soft on the Sunnis"), John Negroponte as National Intelligence Director ("not alarmist enough about the Iranian nuclear threat)", and Generals George Casey and John Abaziad ("jettisoned for having shown a little backbone in their opposition to Cheney and Bush's politically-motivated insistence on throwing more troops into the Iraqi conflagration").

In Bush's mind, the greatest sin is admitting error, or capitulating in any way to the Enemy. Firing Gonzales because Chuck Schumer demands it or because editorialists insist that there was wrongdoing here is exactly the opposite of how Bush behaves.

Obviously, it is possible that he is now so weakened as to have no choice, or that Gonzales will truly resign voluntarily. But while these hearings conclusively demonstrated that this scandal involves serious wrongdoing and dishonesty on Gonzales' part, that was already known before today. But Gonzales clearly showed up today intending and expecting to keep his job.

And that expectation was almost certainly due to the fact that the person for whom he works values, above all else, slavish loyalty and a willingness to do anything to protect the Leader. Nobody exhibits those attributes more than Alberto Gonzales, which is precisely why he is Attorney General in the first place, and it is precisely why the Department of Justice behaves as it does -- not just in this scandal, but generally.

UPDATE: Via Josh Marshall, White House Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino helpfully provides an excellent illustration -- perhaps even a confirmation -- of the the President's view of these matters as described above:

President Bush was pleased with the Attorney General's testimony today. After hours of testimony in which he answered all of the Senators' questions and provided thousands of pages of documents, he again showed that nothing improper occurred. He admitted the matter could have been handled much better, and he apologized for the disruption to the lives of the U.S. Attorneys involved, as well as for the lack of clarity in his initial responses.

The Attorney General has the full confidence of the President, and he appreciates the work he is doing at the Department of Justice to help keep our citizens safe from terrorists, our children safe from predators, our government safe from corruption, and our streets free from gang violence.

Gonzales has been, and continues to be, the perfect Attorney General for George Bush. If anything, today's hearing likely bolstered that view.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

MORE FROM Glenn Greenwald

Related Topics ------------------------------------------