Maybe Gonzales Won't Recall His Painful Day on the Hill

By Dana Milbank
Friday, April 20, 2007

Alberto Gonzales's tenure as attorney general was pronounced dead at 3:02 p.m. yesterday by Tom Coburn, M.D.

The good doctor, who also happens to be a Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, made this clinical judgment after watching Gonzales suffer through four hours of painful testimony. The Oklahoman listed the cause of death as management failure and other complications of the Justice Department's firing of eight federal prosecutors.

"It was handled incompetently. The communication was atrocious," Coburn told the beleaguered attorney general. "You ought to suffer the consequences that these others have suffered, and I believe that the best way to put this behind us is your resignation."

The hearing was billed as Gonzales's chance to explain the contradictions, omissions and falsehoods in his response to the firings. But instead of contrition, the attorney general treated the committee to a mixture of arrogance, combativeness and amnesia. Even his would-be defenders on the Republican side were appalled.

"Mr. Attorney General, most of this is a stretch," said Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

"Why is your story changing?" demanded Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

"Significantly, if not totally, at variance with the facts," said Arlen Specter (Pa.), the committee's ranking Republican.

"Really deplorable," said John Cornyn (R-Tex.). After this blow, from an administration loyalist and an old Texas friend, Gonzales stuttered in his reply.

Gonzales had weeks to prepare for yesterday's hearing. But the man who sat at the witness table sounded like the sort of person who forgets where he parked his car.

Explaining his role in the botched firing of federal prosecutors, Gonzales uttered the phrase "I don't recall" and its variants ("I have no recollection," "I have no memory") 64 times. Along the way, his answer became so routine that a Marine in the crowd put down his poster protesting the Iraq war and replaced it with a running "I don't recall" tally.

Take Gonzales's tally along with that of his former chief of staff, who uttered the phrase "I don't remember" 122 times before the same committee three weeks ago, and the Justice Department might want to consider handing out Ginkgo biloba in the employee cafeteria.

Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), usually an administration friend, asked about a pivotal meeting about the firings that Gonzales attended less than five months ago.

"Senator, I have searched my memory," the attorney general answered. "My schedule shows a meeting for 9:00 on November 27th, but I have no recollection of that meeting."

"This was not that long ago," said a puzzled Sessions. "You don't recall any of that?"

"Believe me," Gonzales repeated. "I've searched my mind about this meeting."

"Well," the senator concluded, "I guess I'm concerned about your recollection."

For much of the very long day, the attorney general responded like a child caught in a lie. He shifted his feet under the table, balled his hands into fists and occasionally pointed at his questioners. He defended his actions: "The decision stands." He denied responsibility: "This was a process that was ongoing that I did not have transparency into." He blamed the victims: "Poor judgment . . . poor management." He blamed his subordinates: "When there are attacks against the department, you're attacking the career professionals."

Mostly, though, he retreated to memory loss. He was asked about the firing of the Arkansas U.S. attorney. "I have no recollection about that." The Nevada prosecutor? "I just don't recall the reason." The western Michigan U.S. attorney? "I don't recall."

The audience included demonstrators from the liberal group Code Pink, about 15 people in orange prison jumpsuits with the name "Gonzales" on them, pink tiaras proclaiming "Justice," a black hood and a large Gonzales mask. When Gonzales took his place early after a lunch break, the demonstrators taunted him until he and his party retreated backstage. When the hearing ended, the activists treated the nation's top law enforcement official to a version of "Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)."

Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) did little to quiet the demonstrators and their occasional shouts of "Resign!" and "Stop lying!" In Leahy's defense, the protesters' sentiments were hard to distinguish from the Republican senators'.

Graham, paraphrasing Gonzales's explanation that the fired prosecutors weren't "the right people at the right time," asked: "If I applied that standard to you, what would you say?" The Code Pinkers erupted in laughter.

Even Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the lone member of the committee to attempt a defense of Gonzales, twice called the matter "poorly handled."

Specter, scolding the witness for "not being candid," pointed out: "I know you've been preparing for this hearing."

"I prepare for every hearing, senator," Gonzales replied, acidly.

Specter glared at the witness and hectored him about his past misstatements. "I don't think you're going to win a debate about your preparation, frankly," he said. This, too, delighted the orange-jumpsuit crowd.

"I apologize," the attorney general said. The water in Gonzales's drinking glass was still sloshing from his pounding on the witness table.

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