Archive   |   Biography   |   RSS Feed   |   Opinions Home

Gonzales the Cipher

Network News

X Profile
View More Activity
By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Dead men tell no tales. But if they did, the ones they would tell about Alberto Gonzales would by now be familiar: an expert in giving his boss, George W. Bush, precisely what he wanted. The dead men in this case are the ones who were executed while Bush was governor of Texas and Gonzales was his legal counsel. Sometimes, as often seems true with Gonzales, the details eluded him.

Clearly, those details could have made the difference between life and death -- or, given the realities of the Texas system, death and a remote chance of a reprieve. But since Bush was not likely to temporarily block any execution or even to raise his voice in mild objection to a particularly heinous railroading, Gonzales kept his death penalty memos short and to the point. Almost always, the point was that the execution should proceed.

The first 57 of the 152 death penalty cases Bush presided over occurred when Gonzales was general counsel. It was his job to prepare a document summarizing the facts of the case. Those memos were examined by Alan Berlow of the Atlantic magazine, who reported on them back in 2003. What he found was that of the 57, there was hardly a case that gave Gonzales pause -- not the mental retardation of the condemned, not the stunning negligence of some lawyers and not the occasional use of questionable police methods. Gonzales was always the imperturbable cog in Texas's killing machine.

In some respects, this should come as no surprise. Bush was -- and remains -- a major advocate of the death penalty, and he retains a touching belief in the near-perfection of the system. Indeed, one reason his Justice Department looked askance at some U.S. attorneys is that they were insufficiently enthusiastic about capital punishment. In career terms, this, in itself, is a capital crime. Gonzales, to the extent that he has any views of his own, apparently thinks as Bush does in this regard -- that is to say, he does not really think at all.

The memos provided by the Atlantic substantiate this. It's not that Gonzales never questioned a condemned prisoner's guilt; it's rather that he never wondered about the process, either. In some cases, the lack of competent legal representation was startling, or the use of dubious experts -- the infamous and discredited James Grigson ("Dr. Death"), for instance -- was appalling. Nonetheless, Gonzales's memos to Bush were serene. He apparently knew what his customer wanted and stocked his shelves accordingly. Executions, almost no matter what, were to proceed.

Part of me wonders about Gonzales. I wonder if he would be getting such rough treatment if he had three names redolent of the board room -- William French Smith, for instance -- instead of just two, both of them ethnic, suggesting the barrio. The aforementioned Smith, like Gonzales a product of Harvard Law, had no government experience before Ronald Reagan named him attorney general -- he got to Washington entirely because he was Reagan's pal. He was the president's crony, nothing more, but he looked the part of legal institution.

Still, Gonzales's performance has been so dismal as to banish any thought of ethnic stereotyping. Mostly, he is the president's loyal functionary, eager to expand the USA Patriot Act, to let the FBI have its way with us, to implement a political purge of U.S. attorneys and to blacken the names of those dismissed as incompetents when, as it now appears, some were actually on some politician's hit list. This supine willingness to enable a hack like Sen. Pete Domenici to ruin a career -- a heroic refusal to stand up for one of your own -- is the hallmark of Gonzales. He is, as eight fired U.S. attorneys can attest, a cipher.

The explanations come and the explanations go. Gonzales was in a meeting. Gonzales was in the meeting but not paying attention. He was in the loop. He was out of the loop. The federal prosecutors were fired for performance reasons, for political reasons, for good political reasons, for acceptable political reasons -- then again, maybe not. All of this is of a piece, the characteristic profile of a man who casts only the dimmest shadow and who, when he worked as legal counsel to the governor of Texas, saw himself as a facilitator representing one man and not, significantly, those who needed him most: the many condemned of Texas. Little wonder Bush supports him.

cohenr@washpost.com


More Washington Post Opinions

PostPartisan

Post Partisan

Quick takes from The Post's opinion writers.

Washington Sketch

Washington Sketch

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the capital.

Tom Toles

Tom Toles

See his latest editorial cartoon.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity