Railroading of Gonzales pushed off track by facts

The Baltimore Sun

SAN DIEGO -- When I wrote recently that Alberto R. Gonzales was being unfairly castigated by - among others - white liberals who have long opposed him because they couldn't claim credit for his achievements, some people took offense. How dare I suggest that race had anything to do with this mess, they said - right before they proceeded to charge, sweet as you please, that the only reason I was defending the embattled attorney general is that we're both Hispanic.

Just curious: If a white male defends another, have you ever heard someone say it's because they're both white males?

The real reason I feel queasy about the ongoing persecution of the attorney general is that the case for his ouster is slowly falling apart.

You wouldn't know it, given how inept Mr. Gonzales and others at the Justice Department have been in defending themselves. Or from the shoddy media coverage, which often has been marked by inaccuracies.

For example, The New York Times penned an editorial March 27 claiming that Mr. Gonzales had denied signing off on the firings of eight U.S. attorneys. But the White House released video footage of Mr. Gonzales - from a week or so earlier - in which he acknowledged that he had approved the firings, while insisting that he was not involved in the nitty-gritty of deciding who ought to go.

In fact, the case against the attorney general is unraveling so fast that the accusations are constantly shifting.

When this nonscandal broke at the beginning of March, the accusation by some was that Mr. Gonzales was guilty of the political equivalent of a felony: canning federal prosecutors to thwart prosecutions that could have political consequences, and then trying to hide it by lying.

Never happened, Mr. Gonzales' former chief of staff told the Senate Judiciary Committee last month. When Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania asked Kyle Sampson if he was "prepared to swear under oath that no U.S. attorney was asked to resign because the U.S. attorney was pursuing an investigation ... or failing to undertake a prosecution," Mr. Sampson answered yes. Later, in response to questioning from Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, Mr. Sampson was even more explicit that "no U.S. attorney was asked to resign for the purpose of influencing a particular case for a political reason."

Hence the predicament facing Senate Democrats: They don't want to take Mr. Sampson's word that the firings of the U.S. attorneys were justified, and yet they insist that Mr. Sampson is credible when he says he doesn't "think the attorney general's statement that he was not involved in any discussions about U.S. attorney removals is accurate."

By the end of the month, the accusations against Mr. Gonzales had been whittled down to what you might consider a misdemeanor, as the punditry complained that Mr. Gonzales had poor communication skills and had badly bungled the explanation of what happened.

It's a fair criticism. Mr. Gonzales could have done himself a lot of good from the beginning by explaining exactly what happened and what didn't happen concerning the fired U.S. attorneys. He'll have one last chance to do that, and perhaps keep his job, when he testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 17.

And yet Mr. Gonzales' critics on both the left and the right are in no position to lecture him on communicating clearly. They haven't been able to settle on one narrative of what he supposedly did wrong since this thing started.

First they said that Mr. Gonzales didn't understand the difference between being the president's lawyer and being the people's lawyer. Then they said he had led a political purge. Then they claimed that Mr. Gonzales lied to Congress when he testified Jan. 18. Then they said he lied to the media at a news conference in March 13. Then they said he had shown poor leadership. Then they said he mishandled the whole thing. And finally, the conservative National Review wrote that Mr. Gonzales had lost his effectiveness and should resign because the Justice Department needed a fresh start.

Such has been the railroading of Alberto Gonzales, orchestrated as it has been - ironically - by people who decry what they insist is the reckless ruining of reputations and tarnishing of the Justice Department for the sake of political expediency.

You don't say.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a syndicated columnist based at the San Diego Union-Tribune. His e-mail is ruben.navarrette@uniontrib.com.

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