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Gonzales' Critics Keep Changing

By Ruben Navarrette

SAN DIEGO -- Readers critical of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales are still fuming over my defending him, and they're demanding a follow-up in light of what one called "recent Alberto disclosures."

One reader wrote: "I am just wondering what it will take for you to admit that you were wrong about Alberto Gonzales," whom he described as "stunningly incompetent, loyal only to President Bush, and a continuing embarrassment to anyone who holds the law dear."

Another reader said he was "very interested to see if your views on this whole mess have evolved as more and more stuff comes out."

The "stuff" includes testimony by James Comey, deputy to former Attorney General John Ashcroft, who told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Gonzales and former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card rushed to Ashcroft's hospital bed to pressure him to sign off on the White House's warrantless wiretap program. Comey saw it as "an effort to take advantage of a very sick man."

It also includes the much-anticipated but anti-climactic testimony of Monica Goodling, Gonzales' former aide, who described to the House Judiciary Committee what she called an uncomfortable meeting with Gonzales where he offered his recollection of the firings of the U.S. attorneys. Democrats saw this as an attempt to shape the narrative of someone who, everyone knew, would eventually be called to testify before Congress.

The episode Comey described may be troubling to some but it has nothing to do with the matter that supposedly concerns congressional Democrats -- whether laws were broken in the firings of U.S. attorneys. The story is simply meant to make Gonzales look heartless. But actually, I think it makes him look like what he was at that moment: a lawyer going to great lengths to serve his client.

I know lawyers who would have put on a gown and surgical mask and followed Ashcroft into the operating room to get a signature.

Which brings me to the contradiction that ensnares Gonzales' critics. These folks have insisted throughout the scandal involving the U.S. attorneys that the problem is that Gonzales was acting as if he were the president's lawyer and not the people's lawyer. Now they're outraged over the hospital visit, which occurred when Gonzales was serving as White House counsel -- you know, the president's lawyer. The critics need to make up their mind or admit that they're going to blast anything Gonzales does or ever did in whatever capacity for whatever reason.

As for Goodling, it's worth noting that she asked for the meeting with Gonzales and that it occurred just a few days before she took a stress-related leave of absence. Here was a 33-year-old staffer at the center of the storm who was, in her words, "paralyzed" by the scandal. That adds credence to the claim from the Justice Department that Gonzales was trying to be supportive of a young staffer going through a difficult time. Why not ask Goodling what she thinks Gonzales was up to? One congressman did. And she said that she believed Gonzales was just being kind.

That seems important. I wonder why that part of her testimony didn't make it into more news accounts, or wasn't given more than a passing reference in others.

The same thing happened several weeks ago when the Senate Judiciary Committee heard from Kyle Sampson, Gonzales' former chief of staff. Democrats and their simpaticos in the media pounced when Sampson testified that Gonzales had not been "entirely accurate" in his own testimony to the committee. But both downplayed Sampson's insistence that the firings of the U.S. attorneys were based on performance and not political considerations.

I've said before that the firings of the U.S. attorneys were mishandled. Gonzales has said that he acted like a CEO, delegating responsibility to staffers. But the Justice Department can't be run that way.

And yet, it's hard to keep track of what Gonzales' critics -- led by Senate Democrats -- believe from week to week. They hear what they want to hear and turn a deaf ear to the rest. They change the rules and toss out whatever criticism suits their ends at any given moment. Still playing "gotcha" politics, the critics are frustrated by their inability to get Gonzales.

Now, in their latest cry for attention, Senate Democrats are threatening to hold a symbolic "no confidence" vote on Gonzales sometime this month. Why wait? I'm ready to vote now. After all the dishonest rhetoric, illogical arguments, and shifting rationales, it's impossible to have any confidence in these proceedings.

(c) 2007, The San Diego Union-Tribune

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 Ruben Navarrette
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