This column is actually an open letter to the students of Texas Tech, who now will have the dubious privilege of taking courses from former Attorney General and White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales. The disgraced former official finally landed a job outside of government—he resigned in 2007 — and now (for one year anyway) will teach political science - "contemporary issues in the executive branch" - at a school most recently known for hosting basketball coach Bobby Knight.
Hey, young people! What an opportunity you have. It's not every day that you get to take a class with a man who has played such a significant role in recent American legal and political history. After all, your new professor is at the heart of: 1) the U.S. Attorney scandal, 2) the terror-memo scandal, 3) the Texas clemency memo scandal, 4) the Valerie Plame scandal, and the 5) domestic surveillance scandal. There are probably a few other scandals he's involved in that we don't even yet know about!
Your new professor is so wanted as a witness and deponent in Washington that when he lectures to you in Lubbock you'll probably have federal investigators sitting in on the class hoping he says something material and relevant. So the first thing you ought to do is buy yourself a really good cell-phone with recording capabilities. You never know when you are going to be able to sell sound-bytes of his remarks to your local television station. And YouTube? Forget about it.
Do me a favor. All of us in the real world have been trying for years to get honest answers from your new professor about his role in all those scandals. So far, we've gotten silly responses, or no responses, and a whole lot of gibberish. He couldn't remember this. He couldn't remember that. Sen. Arlen Specter mocked him and laughed in his face one day in front of the entire Senate Judiciary Committee. First Professor Gonzales hid behind the skirt of his former patron, George W. Bush, and since January has been the beneficiary of a lack of curiosity and courage on the part of the current Congress and Administration. You can do something to change that.
After he finishes his first lecture, when he solicits questions, ask him about the Texas clemency memos. Ask him if he believes it's good "political science" as legal counsel to a governor to give your boss, the chief executive of the state, incomplete, misleading or downright false information about condemned men seeking clemency. Ask him if he believes that reasonable lawyers acting in good faith would have omitted the details he omitted which might have spared the lives of the men. Ask him if any of those short-cuts keep him awake at night and, if not, why not.
The next time he lectures to you about the virtues and vices of politics, ask him to explain to you why he as White House counsel he made that infamous trip to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft's hospital room, while the man was severely ill, to get him to reauthorize a legally-dubious, constitutionally-inform domestic surveillance program. Ask him to explain to you why he thought it was appropriate and good "political science" to pressure an ill colleague late at night in the hospital to change his mind about a vitally controversial program. While you are at it, perhaps you can ask him to invite James B. Comey to guest lecture—he's the fellow who helped protect his boss, Ashcroft, that night.
After a while, you are simply going to have to ask your new professor about his role in the U.S. Attorney scandal, in which he allowed the fabled Justice Department to become a den of partisan, incompetent, under-achieving hacks. Ask Professor Gonzales why he thinks it was better for the Department to be run by graduates of third-rate Regent University instead of a top law school. Ask him why he either encouraged, or allowed, or acquiesced in the dismissal of honest, decent Republican prosecutors. Is that good "political science"?
If you make it this far, and he is still lecturing and hasn't been subpoenaed, you should try to ask Professor Gonzales to tell you what he knew, and when he knew it, about those torture memos that have caused such harm to America. Ask him to explain to you his rationale behind the January 25, 2002 memo he wrote in which he stated that captured Taliban soldiers were not to be given protections under the Geneva POW Convention. Ask him to explain to you why it was good "political science" for America to turn its back on a tradition of being a foe of torture and not a practitioner of it.
Ask Professor Gonzales if he thinks it is good "political science" to stonewall an important investigation into the improper and illegal "outing" of a secret agent. Ask him why he delayed so long — 12 crucial hours — in ordering the protection of documents and emails that were relevant to the investigation. Ask him why he gave a heads up to Andy Card, then President Bush's Chief of Staff, about the investigation that was to come? Is that the way the nation's top lawyer, sworn to uphold the Constitution, is supposed to act?
You should ask him these things because one of the most important lessons you can learn in college is to hold people accountable for their own actions and decisions. You should ask him these things because young people in particular ought to always strive to discover the truth about the world, and the world of law and politics. Trust me, there will be plenty of time later in life to be cynical and skeptical and disbelieving. You should not just sit there in class and let your new professor spew bromides about the majesty of governance. He didn't live up to that ideal when he had the chance, not by a long shot, and don't let him tell you otherwise.
Andrew Cohen is CBS News' Chief Legal Analyst and Legal Editor. CourtWatch is his new blog with analysis and commentary on breaking legal news and events. For columns on legal issues before the beginning of this blog, click here. You can also follow him on Twitter.