Alberto Gonzales: The Worst Attorney General Ever?

So here’s my thought over coffee today: If Democrats follow through on their plans, then Alberto Gonzales will soon become the first US Attorney General in American history ever to face — and probably lose — a no confidence vote in Congress. But is he really the worst Attorney General ever?

The competition is fierce. To start with, two Attorneys General actually were indicted and stood trial from crimes committed in office. John Mitchell (1969-1972), who held post under President Richard M. Nixon, served 19 months of a four-year prison sentence after being convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury for his role in the Watergate scandals. Five decades earlier, Harry Daugherty (1921-1924), who held the post under President Warren G. Harding, escaped prison only by the grace of two hung juries when he was prosecuted on fraud charges growing out of his part in the Teapot Dome Scandal of the 1920s.

But that’s not all. Even putting aside the criminals, you then come to the likes of A. Mitchell Palmer (1919-1921), who presided over the Great Red Scare after World War I. As his signature achievement, Palmer ordered a coast-to-coast round-up of 10,000 suspected leftists, primarily immigrants from Eastern Europe suspected of belonging to the then-recently-formed Communist Party. Almost all of them turned out to be utterly innocent — victims of guilt by association and bungled intelligence. In the process, Palmer’s Justice Department struck without search warrants or arrest warrants, kept suspects locked up for weeks or months with no access to lawyers or family members in overcrowded, makeshift prisons, and ultimately released them without ever charging them with a crime.

Congress considered impeaching Palmer, but its investigation descended into partisan finger pointing. Only Palmer’s young protege, J. Edgar Hoover, who as a 24 year-old staff lawyer in Palmer’s office actually managed the operation, managed to survive the backlash. Hoover, of course, then went on to lead the FBI for 48 years.

Finally, my choice to round out the bottom five would be Roger B. Taney (1831-1833) , who held the AG post briefly under President Andrew Jackson and helped Jackson engineer his controversial scuttling of the Bank of the United States. But Taney did his real damage to the country after Jackson promoted him to Chief Justice of the United States in 1836. Here, Taney gave us such gems as Dred Scott v. Sandford (1856) upholding the Fugitive Slave Law and bringing the nation to the brink of Civil War, and Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842) justifying kidnapping and adduction if done for the sake for keeping slaves.

How does Alberto Gonzales stack up in this exciting race for the bottom? He’s never been indicted for a crime, and has not had the chance to twist the constitution on the Supreme Court. Still, Gonzales has a record on civil liberties that is striking by any standard: his opinions as White House counsel justifying torture, use of secret prisons, ignoring of the Geneva Conventions and of the FISA statute, and his recently-disclosed pressing of John Ashcroft in his hospital bedroom to sign off on even-more-extreme measures . Add to this his record as AG pressing for the suspension of habeas corpus — something even Mitchell Palmer in his wildest zeal never cosidered — and the politicization of the US attorney corps under his watch. It certainly makes him a contender, and he still has over a year left in office to beef it up his claim– so long as his friend in the White House doesn’t fire him and Congress doesn’t impeach him in the meantime.

So best of luck to all the entries. Please weigh in with your favorites.
Meanwhile, all the best. –KenA

Catching Up.

So it was Amy Rose, my astute sister-in-law, who finally confronted me over it. What kind of sorry excure for a Blogger am I to not have entered a single Post in over a month and a half? My last one was March 26 — seven weeks ago. Use it or lose it!! That was the message.

So here I am today, tail between my legs, trying to make amends. Yes, there’s been an ocean of water under the bridge since my last Post, lots having to do with me — good, bad, and indifferent, all mixed together.

Here are a few headlines:

— On the personal level, yes, my new book Young J. Edgar is finally out, with very respectable pre-pub reviews in Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, a nice segment on The Bob Edwards Show on XM radio, good, solid opening events in NYC at the NY Historical Society (James Risen of the NY Times shared the stage with me, a real kick) and in Washington, DC, at the best bookstore around, Politics and Prose. C-Span Booknotes has invited me to tape a segment for “Afterwords,” and I’m still waiting to hear from the major book reviews and media. So on all these many fronts, so far so good.

Yes, mine is one of the books tangled up in the Perseus-Avalon-Carroll and Graf denoument that was making big headlines in publishing circles late last week. How it will affect Young J. Edgar, I still don’t really know. Best I can tell, it’s cause to worry, but not to panic. The new owners seem ready to stand behind it. What will happen next, stay tuned….

— As for the world at large, there has been politics galore since my last Post, good grist for cynics of all stripes. Yes, Alberto Gonzales is still Attorney General of the USA seven weeks after I last weighed in on it, long after most Washington cognoscenti had pronounced him all washed up. I guess, if you’re going to have just one friend in the world, it’s good to have it be that fellow in the White House with all the power and the heavy stubborn streak.

My own personal favorite moment in politics over the past month was the one that came during that debate of the ten Republican presidential candidates when Chris Mathews asked if any of them actually did not believe in evolution, and three raised their hands — including a sitting US Senator and two former governors. It is tempting to make a snide joke here about ignorance in high places. But don’t we all feel a wee bit embarrassed as a country that three contenders for the White House would consider it good politics to deny the validity of the last 150 years of science because it contradicts the book of Genesis? Now don’t get me wrong. I happen to consider Genesis to be a very fine book, wonderfully written, rich in imagery, bursting with noble themes, and well deserving its first-in-the-Bible status. But in a day and age when jihadists are murdering people over the Koran and religion is dividing the planet into warring tribes, isn’t this a good time to stand up for science and secular government? Even Turkey and France seem to get this point better than we do, based on recent events there.

In any event, that’s my rant for today. My coffee is cold now, so I’ll stop. Don’t be a stranger, and I’ll try to post more often as well so my sister-in-law Amy will stay off my case over this. Meanwhile, here’s to good caffeine. All the best. –KenA