The Gonzales Testimony: "A Performance Among The Worst I've Seen By A Public Official"

Lawyer Andrew Cohen analyzes legal affairs for CBS News and
It is hard to know which is more disappointing. Alberto R. Gonzales' miserable performanceyesterday before the Senate Judiciary Committee or President Bush's announcement yesterday afternoon that he was "pleased" with the testimony of his Attorney General.

I watched the contentious hearing for hours Thursday and cannot for the life of me think of a single moment that could have "pleased" the President. In fact, given Mr. Bush's travel plans Thursday—he flew to Ohio and was gone from Washington from 11:10 a.m. to 4:15 p.m.—it's unclear to me whether or how the President even could have watched the testimony that he later endorsed so heartily. And, indeed, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told CBS News this morning that the President was "updated" on the Gonzales hearing but that she does not know whether Mr. Bush actually saw any part of the proceedings.

Certainly, the President could not have been "pleased" when Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma called upon Gonzales to resign as Attorney General. Mr. Bush could not have been pleased when Republican Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina called the Attorney General's explanations for firing eight U.S. Attorneys last year "a stretch." The President surely was not pleased when Republican Senator Arlen Specter, the ranking member of the Committee, told Gonzales that "the reality is that your characterization of your participation is just significantly, if not totally, at variance with the facts." And those were just the Republicans. You can only imagine what the Democrats had to say.

Me? I'm more in the camp of the unnamed "White House officials" who reportedly said that the Attorney General was "going down in flames." I thought that Gonzales' performance was among the worst I have ever seen offered by a public official on Capitol Hill. The Attorney General, our nation's top law enforcement official, was evasive, incomplete and at times even incoherent with his explanations about what he knew, and when he knew it, when it came to the decisions that were made about the prosecutors by the Justice Department and White House. He kept saying "I don't know" or "I don't recall" and he was particularly infuriating to the senators when he used as a crutch the notion that current investigations into the scandal have precluded him doing more to offer them relevant answers to their earnest questions.

Two images of Gonzales emerged yesterday and neither will do much to enhance the Attorney General's stature in Washington or anywhere else. The first image is of Gonzales as a man stonewalling for others; of refusing to tell all that he knows about why the prosecutors were fired and what role the White House played in those decisions. This is unacceptable for many reasons, not the least of which is that as the nation's top lawyer the Attorney General stands as a symbol for justice, not the obstruction thereof.

The second image is of Gonzales as a leader who could not and did not lead; who allowed his unseasoned subordinates to make vital personnel decisions without any meaningful input or supervision from their boss. This is unacceptable not just because the results were disastrous—monumentally bad judgment at the Justice Department lead us to where we are today—but also because it demonstrates that one of the nation's most important cabinet-level positions is now filled by someone who has taken neither command nor responsibility.

Whether he is a liar, as some say, or a fool, as others contend, the consequence ought to be the same. And if you didn't believe it before surely you should consider it now in the wake of his appalling testimony before the Committee: Gonzales simply isn't good enough to merit the job he now has. The President may be "pleased" by a performance he never saw but I suspect that many other Americans would beg to differ.