Tuesday, May 8, 2007

The moment Gonzales knew he'd have to resort to the "pinhead defense"

When Attorney General Gonzales testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month he claimed some variant of "I don't recall" some sixty or seventy times in six hours, in response to the committee's questions.

In his interview with Bill Moyers, taped only a few days after Gonzales' performance, Jon Stewart likened the moment to a crucial scene in American Mob Mythology:

JON STEWART: And by the way, that was all just — that was a game, and he knew it, and the guys on the committee knew it. And for the President to come out after that and say, "Everything I saw there gave me more confidence in him," that solidified my notion that, "Oh, it's because what he expected of Gonzalez was" it's sort of like, do you remember in GOODFELLAS? When Henry Hill got arrested for the first time and Robert DeNiro met him at the courthouse and Henry Hill was really upset, 'cause he thought Robert DeNiro would be really mad at him. And DeNiro comes up to him and he gives him a $100 and he goes, "You got pinched. We all get pinched, but you did it right, you didn't say nothing."

BILL MOYERS: Gonzales said nothing.

JON STEWART: Right. And "you went up there and said nothing. You gave them no legal recourse against you, and you made yourself a smart man, a self-made man look like an utter pinhead on national television, and you did it for me."

Even for a man as servile as Gonzales, as pliant to the will of his patron Bush, those six hours had to sting at least a little. I mean, yes, he's servile--but that servility had elevated him to the job of the chief law enforcement official in the nation. Was the 'pinhead defense" really his best option?

Well, whether his performance can be written off to shamelessness, or (more likely) to the realization dawning in the rodent mind of a Harvard-degreed lawyer that the game was up, we can now pretty much pinpoint the moment when Gonzales knew he was going to have to sandbag the Judiciary Committee--and he was not pleased by the prospect:

When the Roehrkasse e-mail came to light, he told the press that Gonzales had been upset because he believed that “Bud Cummins’ removal involved performance considerations.” But on April 15, Congressional sources tell TIME, Gonzales’ former chief of staff Kyle Sampson told a different story. During a private interview with Judiciary Committee staffers Sampson said three times in as many minutes that Gonzales was angry with McNulty because he had exposed the White House’s involvement in the firings — had put its role “in the public sphere,” as Sampson phrased it, according to Congressional sources familiar with the interview.

That was the moment he knew. That was the moment he realized to his dismay that ritual self-mortification would be the next logical move for him.

Maybe you, like me, spent some time over the last seven years wondering if the key players of Team Bush were genuinely criminal-minded, or simply not very good at their jobs. (Except for Cheney, of course; that question was settled in his case before Nixon boarded the helicopter.)

Little moments of clarity like this make it increasingly clear we no longer need to wrestle with that distinction, and never did. Gonzales might be a toady, but he's a toady who understood precisely the moral, legal, and constitutional lines he was crossing on behalf of the team. And if that meant being a coast-to-coast pinhead, that was a small price to pay considering some of the alternatives.

Bush and Cheney may well prove to be too big to prosecute. But there's some precedent for the notion of AG's going to the slammer. It can be done.

Perhaps that's why it took Gonzales such an embarrassingly long time to "prepare" for his Judiciary Committee testimony: Maybe he wasn't trying to get his stories straight, as many pundits (and bards) speculated.

Maybe he spent that time in front of the bathroom mirror, practicing different ways to deliver his message:
"I don't recall."
"I don't re-call."
"I don't re-call."
"I don't recall."
"I don't recall."

And so on. After all, even the "pinhead defense" goes down a little better with some artistic variation.

(Hat tip to Think Progress.)

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