Justice by a Lower Standard

Lessons from the U.S. Attorneys scandal


For some people, the key to happiness is low standards. If you never expect much out of life, you will rarely be disappointed, and you will be content with outcomes that others would find unbearable. It's a formula that is working quite satisfactorily for President Bush and many congressional Republicans in the controversy over the U.S. attorney firings.

Monica Goodling, who was an aide to Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales, agreed to appear before a House committee only after pleading her right against self-incrimination and then getting a grant of immunity. Here's a good rule of thumb: Innocent people who are prepared to tell the truth don't take the Fifth. Despite her efforts to defend herself and her boss, she painted a picture that should have been thoroughly demoralizing to those on the administration's side, not to mention everyone else.

Byron York of the conservative National Review Online said her revelations suggested, at best, that the process was "so slipshod, so halting and so pointless that nobody quite knew what was going on." Yet one GOP member after another took her words as vindication of the administration. Crowed Wisconsin Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner, "With this fishing expedition, there ain't no fish in the water."

Well, it depends on your definition of fish. Goodling's net yielded some critters that had an unmistakably scaly, aquatic look.

She admitted inquiring into the political affiliations of applicants for career jobs—an apparent violation of federal law. She said the attorney general had made inaccurate public statements about his role in the firings. She praised him in terms you would use for an earnest but dimwitted child: "I thought he tried hard."

At the same time, she suggested that sometimes his efforts were for questionable purposes. Goodling told of a meeting with Gonzales in March, in which he helpfully provided his own recollection of events—a conversation that made her "uncomfortable" because "I just did not know if it was a conversation that we should be having."

She said she didn't think he was trying to shape her testimony, but if not, why was she so uncomfortable? In any case, Goodling's account contradicted what he told the same committee earlier this month—that he avoided discussing the episode with other possible witnesses "in order to preserve the integrity" of the current investigations.

This is another case where Gonzales is either dishonest or extraordinarily forgetful. When he appeared before a Senate committee last month, his testimony was so hapless and unbelievable that even conservative Republicans were rolling their eyes and suppressing their gag reflex.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., accused him of mangling the truth. An old ally, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said his handing of the matter was "deplorable." Their attitude was that of parents whose wayward teen had broken curfew and wrecked the car—they couldn't quite disown him, but they weren't about to condone his behavior.

The president, however, has pronounced himself pleased. Each stumble and embarrassment involving the attorney general may sap public confidence, but it has the opposite effect on Bush's sentiments. Under this president, failure is always an option—and often a guarantee of longevity.

Considered in the most flattering light, the firings showed a process that was sloppy, amateurish and poorly informed, with no one in charge and no one responsible for the ultimate decisions. At worst, it revealed a highly politicized atmosphere that elevated partisan goals above fuddy-duddy concerns like honest law enforcement.

In case after case, a U.S. attorney got the gate after failing to pursue investigations that would have hurt Democrats and helped Republicans. Goodling said she considered politics even for jobs that are supposed to be exempt from such considerations. Where do you think she got the idea that was appropriate? From the back of a cereal box?

When he testified on Capitol Hill, former Deputy Atty. Gen. James Comey—no flaming liberal but a John Ashcroft protege—said this last revelation was the worst thing he had heard. "You just cannot do that," he said. "It deprives the department of its lifeblood, which is the ability to stand up and have juries of all stripes believe what you say, and have sheriffs and judges and jailers—the people we deal with—trust the Department of Justice."

But rest assured, you should trust this Department of Justice. And if you can't, lower your standards until you can.


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