By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, August 28, 2007
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales resigned his post in a familiar way -- with one final whopper.
A White House spokesman said yesterday that President Bush accepted the beleaguered attorney general's resignation on Friday afternoon. But when New York Times reporters called on Saturday to ask about word of Gonzales's departure, the attorney general directed his spokesman to deny the rumors.
For a man accused of lying to Congress, it was a fitting way to go out.
Equally emblematic was the way in which Gonzales announced his departure yesterday morning. From "good morning" to "God bless America," he spoke for all of one minute and 41 seconds -- during which he managed to consult his written statement 26 times and to avoid saying a single word about the roiling scandals that finally forced him to quit. He entered the Justice Department conference room with a grin and departed without taking any of the questions shouted at his back:
"Why are you leaving?"
"Why did you deny the resignation?"
Neither were the questions answered by Gonzales's resignation letter, which the White House released later -- complete with a grammatical error in the second sentence.
Then again, nobody was waiting for Gonzales's answers yesterday. The dancing had already begun atop the AG's fresh grave.
At 8:17 a.m. -- four minutes after the first bulletin crossed the news wires and more than two hours before Gonzales's formal announcement, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) issued a statement celebrating that "the attorney general has done the right thing and stepped down."
Democratic presidential candidates held a mini Gonzales primary. John Edwards was the first out with a statement, at 8:34 a.m., followed by Barack Obama (9:09), Bill Richardson (9:28), Joe Biden (10:15) and Chris Dodd (11:12). Hillary Rodham Clinton (11:04) was uncharacteristically slow -- but she leapfrogged ahead of the pack by condemning not only Gonzales but also his rumored replacement, Michael Chertoff.
A lonely group of Republicans spoke up to defend Gonzales. Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah) condemned the "absurd political theater" and Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.) told MSNBC that he hated to see "a good man chewed up and spit out." But the Republican presidential candidates were conspicuously silent. Rudy Giuliani, the front-runner, issued a press release at 9:30 proclaiming: "Dems Will Raise Taxes."
The grave-dancing continued. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) said that Gonzales's departure was "in the best interest of our nation." House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called it "long overdue" and Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean said it was "about time." Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) scheduled a teleconference. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) vowed that Congress will still "get to the bottom of this mess."
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), caught out of position on a trip to Poland, tried to hold a conference call about Gonzales but lost his connection twice. Even without Polish telecommunications woes, Specter would have been no match for Schumer, who brought his full arsenal of cliches to a news conference in New York: "straw [that] broke the camel's back . . . a sinking ship . . . the prevailing winds . . . middle of the road . . . throw down the gauntlet . . . a slam-dunk."
Was Schumer surprised by the announcement?
"I guess I was the first to call for the attorney general to step down," he boasted.
As the senator was finishing, Bush faced the cameras in Texas to complain about the unseemly grave-dancing. "It's sad that we live in a time when a talented and honorable person like Alberto Gonzales is impeded from doing important work because his good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons," the president said of his "reluctant" acceptance of Gonzales's resignation.
More mud awaited Gonzales in the Justice Department conference room, where journalists were in a feisty mood. Several regular Justice reporters arrived for the resignation speech, only to have their building passes confiscated and replaced with one-time "Special Event" passes.
Asked to check the sound system, one of the correspondents played Gonzales at the lectern. "I just thought it was time to spend more time with my family," he announced. The real Gonzales must have expected the worst when he came out to read his resignation statement, because he was preceded on stage by an earpiece-wearing bodyguard.
"I have traveled a remarkable journey, from my home state of Texas to Washington," Gonzales said, shaking his head as he marveled at the journey. His voice thickened as he mentioned his wife, but he recovered in plenty of time to remind listeners of his upbringing as the poor son of Mexican immigrants.
"I have lived the American dream," he said. "Even my worst days as attorney general have been better than my father's best days."
Gonzales's Justice Department, however, has seen better days, if the backdrop behind the attorney general was any indication. It hung like a dangling metaphor: the Department of Justice plaque, suspended from the ceiling with the help of blue masking tape.