Musical Chairs in the White House


WASHINGTON, D.C.—In an intricate game of revolving chairs within the Bush administration, the President is nominating White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales, whom the Dems can’t think of any real reason to oppose, for attorney general. At the same time, he is withholding serious backing for Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter, who is up for chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will oversee the Justice Department and, more importantly, give a stamp of approval to anti-abortion Supreme Court appointees. The Christian conservatives don’t like Specter because he slipped and suggested it would be difficult to get an anti-choice chief justice of the Supreme Court through the Senate.

Gonzales is a Bush bud who isn’t likely to make a scene regarding nude statuary in federal buildings or be found praying in inappropriate places. He is best known for sending a signal to the rest of the administration, i.e. Pentagon chief Donald “The Energizer Bunny” Rumsfeld, that it is OK to skirt provisions of the Geneva Conventions protecting prisoners of war. This led to cruel treatment of prisoners in Iraq and Guantánamo. The Patriot Act is a non-issue because both Republicans and Democrats of all stripes passed it without even reading it. Bush regards the Patriot Act as one of his signal contributions to American life, and he’ll make sure Gonzales carries its prosecution forward.

The Christian right, meanwhile, is breathing a sigh of relief that Bush didn’t put Gonzales on the Supreme Court. To them, appointing Gonzales to chief justice can be read as a signal that the President is sticking fast to his promise to appoint purist judges.

As a secular matter, the appointment of Gonzales means Bush has his own man on to bury the seemingly endless stream of FBI screwups—ranging all the way from its lousy computer system to its wacky laboratory and, most egregiously, to losing, misreading, or ignoring translated recordings of various informants at home and abroad who were trying to alert us to the World Trade Center attack before it happened.

The naming of Specter to Senate Judiciary chair is viewed here as a much more serious matter, one which the Christian right is determined to undermine.

The Christian right is getting support from another quarter, those conservatives who want to curb lawyers’ fees. “With Sen. John Edwards on his way out,” writes Timothy P. Carney in today’s Washington Times op-ed, “Arlen Specter is the favorite senator of the trial lawyers. Tort reform is near the top of the president’s priority list.” But Carney also writes that “one staff attorney on the Judiciary Committee told [him] that tort reform is dead if Specter is chairman.”

Getting rid of Specter is not a done deal. In The Wall Street Journal he begged for mercy, groveling and whining about how he voted for all the Republican conservative appointees and how that confirms his pro-life credentials. He said his recent comments on abortion were reported incorrectly. And indeed, Fox News, the Tass, of this administration, examined the senator’s statements and said he was indeed wrongly quoted. And if that weren’t good enough, the whimpering Specter pointed out in the Journal that he “led the fight to confirm Justice Clarence Thomas which almost cost me my Senate seat in 1992.”

Specter is backed by Rush Limbaugh (“This Specter story—may be a story about the media again . . . it may be that some words were put in his mouth that he didn’t say,”) and Pat Robertson (“I am not worried about Arlen Specter, and I think he’ll be fine.”).

Still, the matter is far from settled.