Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and CBSNews.com
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales has endured his share of criticism in the past, but nothing of the sort he now faces for his role in the burgeoning scandal over the forced White House dismissal of eight federal prosecutors.
What is different about this problem for Gonzales, compared with his past troubles anyway, is that he is forced by his current position and by the tide of events to address and resolve the matter from center stage instead of from his usual spot in the back row.
White House advisor Dan Bartlett on Tuesday called Gonzales "a stand-up guy" but I'm not sure that the Attorney General's strongest suit is standing up and facing the music. When he faced criticism four years ago for his remarkably shoddy legal memoranda in death-row clemency cases for then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Gonzales already was ensconced in the White House as counsel to the President. He never had to stand in front of the cameras and try to defend his indefensible factual analysis and legal conclusions that helped lead to scores of executions.
Likewise, when the world learned about Gonzales' role in the infamous "torture" memos that helped beget Abu Ghraib, the attorney general, still White House counsel, was able to shield himself from the full heat of public scrutiny by invoking "national security" and, of course, the ever-present "attorney-client privilege."
Again, he was able to shield himself from the worst criticism — and others took much of his deserved heat. So much so that he was nominated two years later to be the 80th attorney general in U.S. history.
These past dodges, defenses, screens and curtains are not an option for Gonzales as the media horde and political posse swarms in to determine the role he played — or did not play — in protecting his U.S. Attorneys from White House interference. Also add into the mix the altered face of Congress. Last term, and the term before that, and the term before that, the president's friends in the Republican party controlled Congress. And, in so doing, they controlled the power of the subpoena, the gold standard when it comes to shortening or lengthening the pace of an investigation.
If this scandal had erupted last March, it's hard to imagine that it would not have ended by now, smoothed over by GOP power brokers in the corridors of power.
Now, it's a whole different matter.
Even as Gonzales was gaping and sweating in the spotlight Tuesday afternoon, even after he was trying to be the sort of "stand-up" guy his boss at the White House admires, Congressional Democrats were saying publicly that they intend to subpoena Karl Rove, former White House counsel Harriet Miers and others, to determine who knew what and when. This all but ensures that this story will be alive, contrary to White House wishes, for the foreseeable future. This, and the fact that there are plenty of good and decent federal prosecutors out there, past and present, who are furious or disappointed that their titular chiefs were unable or unwilling to help protect them from the worst political pressures.
To be sure, Gonzales has very little control over much of this. For example, I suspect, although I don't want to be too cynical, that even if Gonzales had resigned Tuesday, and declared that he was behind the whole thing, and thrown in a confession to the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, we would still see subpoenas from the Senate Judiciary Committee.
As this White House learned as recently as last week, when I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice, investigations into wrongdoing, especially in Washington, often take on powers and destinies of their own. No one, including the attorney general, can honestly say where all of this will lead.
So with the underbrush cleared away and the wolves snapping at his heels, we may finally get a sense of what kind of man Gonzales is. We know him so far in his professional life to be a company man, dramatically dedicated and loyal to the political success of his patron. But it goes beyond that. During an interview two years ago when asked to name his role models, Gonzales said that next to his mother and his father the biggest influence of his life was "our President, who's given me some wonderful opportunities. I've learned a lot from him in the various roles that I've seen him in, as a father, and as a governor, and as a president."
That sort of Hallmark sentiment may explain why Gonzales has repeatedly jeopardized his own place in legal history for the sake of George W. Bush — but it isn't going to win over today's Washington.
Over the past few days, I have conducted several interviews with some of the nation's grey eminences in politics, law and history. Some of these men are Democrats. Some are Republicans. Some are Lord knows what. Not a single person I spoke with told me that they believe Gonzales has acted as attorney general with the sort of intellectual heft or political and personal courage necessary to do the job well.
If you were an optimist you could say that the current crisis presents Gonzales with an opportunity to change some of those minds. Will he change the course of his own history and finally show some independence from the White House? Can he? And, if he does, will that mean sacrificing what is left of his political career for the sake of the Justice Department? The shady preludes to this stage of his career are over and it is as if all of his past sins have combined to make his current one appear all the more venal.
The man and his moment finally have met. The nation's top lawyer now faces a political judgment. He cannot hide any longer behind the White House, or legal principles, or sheer anonymity. The "stand-up" guy has to either stand up or become the "fall guy." It's a psychodrama that even Hollywood could not make up and I cannot wait to see it unfold.
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