I wanted to avoid the usual cliches about watching the sausage get made, but the confirmation battle over Alberto Gonzales is a classic example of why these things are so unpleasant to watch.
When it was still just a rumor that Gonzales would replace John Ashcroft as attorney general, ABC's George Stephanopoulos opined that "even that kind of a cosmetic change" - appointing the first Hispanic attorney general - "would suggest a change in tone."
That's right. What offended people about Ashcroft's tenure at DOJ weren't his policies, his intelligence, or his skill as an administrator. It was the deafeningly "white" tone emanating from everything he did. And, besides, we all know those Hispanics are just plain nicer.
It seems, however, that Gonzales' ethnic force-field couldn't fully protect him from reality, as he faced tough questions in his confirmation hearings about his role in the treatment of "enemy combatants," as well as in the phantasmagorically exaggerated horrors of Guantanamo. (For all of the talk about how Ashcroft was the mustache-twirling evil mastermind behind these things, it took Gonzales' nomination to make Ashcroft's critics realize that the outgoing A.G. had nothing to do with them. That stuff was all run by the Department of Defense and the White House Counsel's Office.)
Fortunately for Gonzales, a Hispanic tone isn't his only strong suit. He has a rags-to-riches story as the son of migrant workers. And, for some Republicans, that's all he needs. On the eve of Gonzales' hearings,Viet Dinh, a former assistant attorney general, declared that "as a matter of politics and as a matter of policy," Gonzales' personal tale "will counteract any specific questions that are legitimately asked."
Now, I think Gonzales deserves to be confirmed. But if you're qualified for the job, it shouldn't matter if you're father was Bill Gates. And if you're unqualified, it shouldn't matter if you're papa was a rolling stone.
These were only the opening acts for the passion play, during the hearings, about Gonzales' "support" for torture.
In 2002, the CIA and others asked Gonzales to clarify what constitutes torture. In turn, Gonzales asked the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel to brief him on the DOJ's position. The OLC came back with a memo that defined torture as, well, torture. That is, inflicting pain that was tantamount to organ failure and the like. Further, it said, Congress had given the executive branch the authority to use torturous methods if it deemed them necessary. DOJ scaled back that opinion at the end of December, broadening the definition of torture to include lasting mental suffering and simply physical suffering.