Steve Chapman

For some people, the key to happiness is low standards. If you never expect much out of life, you will rarely be disappointed, and you will be content with outcomes that others would find unbearable. It's a formula that is working quite satisfactorily for President Bush and many congressional Republicans in the controversy over the U.S. attorney firings.

Monica Goodling, who was an aide to Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales, agreed to appear before a House committee only after pleading her right against self-incrimination and then getting a grant of immunity. Here's a good rule of thumb: Innocent people who are prepared to tell the truth don't take the Fifth. Despite her efforts to defend herself and her boss, she painted a picture that should have been thoroughly demoralizing to those on the administration's side, not to mention everyone else.

Byron York of the conservative National Review Online said her revelations suggested, at best, that the process was "so slipshod, so halting and so pointless that nobody quite knew what was going on." Yet one GOP member after another took her words as vindication of the administration. Crowed Wisconsin Rep. James Sensenbrenner, "With this fishing expedition, there ain't no fish in the water."

Well, it depends on your definition of fish. Goodling's net yielded some critters that had an unmistakably scaly, aquatic look.

She admitted inquiring into the political affiliations of applicants for career jobs -- an apparent violation of federal law. She said the attorney general had made inaccurate public statements about his role in the firings. She praised him in terms you would use for an earnest but dimwitted child: "I thought he tried hard."

At the same time, she suggested that sometimes his efforts were for questionable purposes. Goodling told of a meeting with Gonzales in March, in which he helpfully provided his own recollection of events -- a conversation that made her "uncomfortable" because "I just did not know if it was a conversation that we should be having."

She said she didn't think he was trying to shape her testimony, but if not, why was she so uncomfortable? In any case, Goodling's account contradicted what he told the same committee earlier this month -- that he avoided discussing the episode with other possible witnesses "in order to preserve the integrity" of the current investigations.

This is another case where Gonzales is either dishonest or extraordinarily forgetful. When he appeared before a Senate committee last month, his testimony was so hapless and unbelievable that even conservative Republicans were rolling their eyes and suppressing their gag reflex.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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