As Bush swaps Ashcroft for Gonzales, even the staunchest civil libertarian can't help a twinge of nostalgia. Say what you will about Ashcroftthrough all the detentions, the tortures, the abuses of privacy and the stifling of dissent, you could always count on Ashcroft to do something so absurd, so cartoonishly zealous, that for about five guilty seconds it almost seemed worth it. Remember the time he spent thousands to drape the lascivious Lady Justice? Or when, upon his appointment, he anointed himself with Crisco oil? Or losing his Senate seat to a dead man? "Let the Eagle Soar"?!? If you're going to eviscerate the First and Fourth Amendments, you may as well keep the Left entertained while you're at it.
As Senator Schumer so incisively noted, Gonzales isn't Ashcroft. Worse: he's all of the fascism, with none of the fun. Besides killing mirth, however, Gonzales' moderate personage puts a dignified face on the abuses of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, granting such practices credibility where none is due. When the White House serves up Patriot Act 2, they'll be betting on Gonzales' palatability to goad the Dems to choke it down. In his nomination speech, Bush noted Gonzales' "calm and steady voice in times of crisis"a voice that has counseled torture, pushed execution of the mentally retarded, and pooh-poohed international law. No matter how soothing his tone, when it comes to upholding even the most basic of civil rights during wartime, Gonzales' radicalism matches Ashcroft's.
Thankfully, it's pretty well known that Gonzales approved an infamous August 1 memo authorizing torture and belittling the Geneva Conventions as "quaint." It's less well known, however, that Gonzales played a sordid part in W's Texas execution machine, willfully concealing life-or-death information in his memos briefing the then-governor on death penalty cases. In one particularly egregious case, that of Terry Washington, Gonzales somehow failed to mention anywhere (in a three-page memo on the subject) that the 33-year-old was mentally retarded and a victim of child abuse. Regardless of your feelings on execution, do you trust this man?
Bush affectionately calls him "mi abogado" (my lawyer)an apt term. As counsel to then-Governor Bush, Gonzales helped him dodge jury duty and disclosure of his D.U.I.; in the White House, he's hidden information on Cheney's energy task force meetings and locked up Bush nominee Miguel Estrada's memoranda from the prying eyes of Congress. Certainly Gonzales has been a devoted advocate for the interests of Bush and his coterie. But as Senator Herb Kohl of Wisconsin reminds us, "the attorney general is America's lawyer"not the President's.
Ashcroft's policies, of course, were never all that funny. His personal foibles, however, detracted from his effectiveness as a salesman for Bush's post-9/11 program. Given the administration's success in pushing the Patriot Act, it might seem odd to construe Ashcroft as a White House liability. Recall Ashcroft's Patriot Act publicity tour, however, and it's clear that the attorney general was doing some unanticipated cleanup for his own P.R. messes. With the smoother new attorney general, Gonzales, the Bush administration may be able to put even more strain on our ailing civil liberties. NoGonzales isn't funny. He's just frightening.