The Song's the Same
"It's a massacre, it's a tragedy, it's a travesty of justice!" Those were the words that began the opening number to Watergate: The Musical, written by my friend Maryland playwright Cybele Pomeroy several years ago. The song was called "Saturday Night Massacre" and it opened the saga of the fall of the Nixon administration. What served as dramatic (and comedic) fodder for Pomeroy is turning out to be the book and lyrics to the Bush administration's latest salvo at the bulwarks of constitutional democracy.
At the end of last year, the Bushies fired seven U.S. attorneys across the country, using a little-noticed provision snuck into the reauthorization of the Patriot Act by Sen. Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania in conference committee meetings where Democrats were blocked from participating. Spector's amendment allowed the president to fire and replace U.S. attorneys without bothering to require their confirmation by the Senate. In short, Republicans handed over yet one more congressional oversight role to the executive.
Years ago I talked with Kweisi Mfume, when he was serving as congressman of Maryland's 7th District, about his principled opposition to the line-item veto. "Once you hand over legislative power to the executive," he explained, "history has shown that he rarely ever gives it back." This administration has not only convinced lawmakers to surrender their power and constitutional roles willingly, but also has thumbed its nose at congresspeople when they ask questions.
According to conservative columnist Robert Novak, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is planning to ignore written requests from Democratic lawmakers about the firings. Novak cites Gonzales' response to a Christian Broadcasting Network reporter: "I think that the American people lose if I spend all my time worrying about congressional requests for information, if I spend all my time responding to subpoenas."
If this is all news to you, perhaps a little background is in order. Over the past few weeks, there has been a growing furor over the dismissal of the U.S. attorneys, as one, Southern California's Carol Lam, was conducting a high-profile investigation of Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a Republican who was convicted in a wide-ranging public corruption scandal last year in San Diego. Another U.S. attorney, New Mexico's David Iglesias, was allegedly being pressured by Rep. Heather Wilson and Sen. Pete Domenici, both Republicans, to deliver an indictment in an investigation of a state Democratic official. When Iglesias didn't deliver fast enough--Wilson was in a very hard-fought election battle in a season when Democrats had the GOP on the ropes over corruption--it appears the Republicans appealed to the White House to get him tossed.
Gonzales' arrogance is just the final juicy cherry placed on top of a giant sundae of imperialistic administration behavior. When the attorneys were first revealed to have been pushed out en masse, the Justice Department's first excuse was to say that they were canned for "performance reasons." Oops. Nobody likes to be called a screwup, especially when it's not true. Reports began to leak out about how none of the attorneys was subpar in his or her duties, and Democratic lawmakers forced the Justice Department to cough up performance evaluations. And--surprise, surprise--they all came back ranging from "well-regarded" and "capable" to "very competent."
Now the White House is admitting its role in the matter, claiming that the fired attorneys were not fully carrying out the administration's wishes to the fullest on prosecutions related to firearms, immigration, and other unnamed issues. It's hard to believe this when the original lie was so quickly revealed as transparent, especially when one of the people named to fill the purged attorney spots, Tim Griffin, was named to be the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas. Pray tell what was Griffin's former job previous expertise? Why, he happened to be an opposition-research specialist who was an aide to Karl Rove! Now why on earth would anyone want to name a professional dirt-digger to a job in Arkansas right when Hillary Clinton is mounting a run for the White House in 2008?
Slate.com's crackerjack legal correspondent, Dahlia Lithwick, posits an interesting motive for the firings as well. "It's a very short hop from a U.S. attorney gig to the federal bench," Lithwick says. "I wouldn't be surprised if Rove and Co.--who truly live to makeover the federal bench--were willing to suffer a little short-term political embarrassment in order to better situate some loyalists for future judgeships."
As we know from experience (see Bush v. Gore in 2000), a partisan on the bench is the best way to make sure that what you want to happen actually happens. If those young Rove acolytes and Bush loyalists leapfrog to the federal court system, they would be a readymade taxi squad of young, hard-right ideologues with which to stack the courts and tilt the judiciary and possibly even the Supreme Court for years to come.
It's beginning to look like the Bush administration saw that musical--only it wants its ending to look a whole lot different than Nixon's did.
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