Roughed Up on the Hill

Friday, April 20, 2007

YESTERDAY'S "reconfirmation hearing" for Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, as Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) called it, didn't go particularly well -- but then again, there was no reason to expect that it would. It was impossible to watch the hearing without feeling sorry for Mr. Gonzales, who is bogged down in uncomfortable terrain. He has to acknowledge that he knew something, but not much, about the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, which makes him appear a feckless manager, a dissembler, or both. His long-awaited appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee underscored the degree to which his credibility gap has widened into a chasm, for Republicans as well as Democrats.

Mr. Specter, the committee's ranking Republican, questioned whether the attorney general "had been candid -- more bluntly, truthful" in earlier claims that he was not involved in the firings and said that he was "carrying forward this same pattern of not being candid" in his prepared testimony. Another of the committee's more maverick Republicans, South Carolina's Lindsey O. Graham, told Mr. Gonzales: "You said something that struck me, that sometimes it just came down to these were not the right people at the right time.' If I applied that standard to you, what would you say?"

But more reliable administration supporters also were scathing. "I believe that you should have been more involved in the entire process," said Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions. When Mr. Gonzales said he did not remember a Nov. 27 meeting at which the firings were discussed, Mr. Sessions replied: "I'm concerned about your recollection, really, because it's not that long ago. It was an important issue. And that's troubling to me, I've got to tell you."

Similarly, Texas Republican John Cornyn: "General Gonzales, you and I have known each other a long time, and I believe that you are a good and decent man. But I have to tell you that the way that this investigation has been handled has just been -- been really deplorable." And Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn bluntly told Mr. Gonzales that he should quit. "It was handled incompetently. The communication was atrocious," Mr. Coburn said. "It's generous to say that there were misstatements. . . . And I believe you ought to suffer the consequences that these others have suffered."

Some Republicans were more supportive, but the overall attitude toward Mr. Gonzales was skeptical, and appropriately so. For instance, explaining his "imprecise and overbroad" statement that he had had "no discussions" about replacing the U.S. attorneys, Mr. Gonzales said that he "felt a tremendous need to come out quickly and defend the department," before he had a chance to check the records. But he made that statement on March 13, nearly two months after he was first questioned at a Senate hearing about the firings, and he was defending himself, not the department.

"The moment I believe I can no longer be effective I will resign as attorney general," Mr. Gonzales said yesterday. That moment has arrived, whether or not the attorney general and the president are willing to acknowledge it.

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