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Gonzales Hearing 1:54 p.m.His Timing Is Off, But His Boss’s Execution Never Is



Dear in the headlights: Gonzales displays his Office of White House Counsel game face. In testimony before the Senate today, he comes across as even more of a Bush butt-kisser and yes-man.

In a showdown at high noon today, Wisconsin Democratic senator Russ Feingold faced off against Alberto Gonzales, and the American public flinched.

Maybe that’s because it’s so rare to see a TV gunfight in which one of the participants lies his way out of it.

During the first round of Judge Al’s Senate confirmation hearing, almost exactly as the clock struck twelve on Capitol Hill, Feingold raised the issue of Bush’s speedy executions while Texas governor.

Why, he asked, were Judge Al’s memos for Bush prepared no sooner than the day of execution?

Well, replied Judge Al, that’s because the memos merely “summarized discussions.” He added that there was a, er, uh, a “rolling series of discussions” with Bush “about every execution.”

I don’t think so, Judge Al. I think you lie. I pointed out on December 28 a thoroughly reported Salon piece that directly contradicts what you said today. This is what I wrote:

Bush’s typically careless and inattentive behavior, in this instance toward pleas of clemency, was enabled back in his goobernatorial years by his factotum Gonzales. During the 2000 presidential campaign, Alan Berlow pointed out in “The Hanging Governor,” also in Salon:

Even Bush’s former counsel, Judge Alberto R. Gonzales, says that a typical execution would receive no more than 30 minutes of the governor’s time.

You can see that passage by Berlow in context here, in his May 2000 piece, if you subscribe to Salon.

Berlow didn’t make this up. He talked to people and pried documents out of Bush’s goobernatorial file cabinets.

Feingold then brought up the execution of Carl Johnson, whose lawyer slept through parts of his murder trial before Johnson was sent to death row. When Johnson’s new lawyers fought for a new trial, and then for clemency, Gonzales didn’t even mention in his memo to Bush the reasons that the guy’s new lawyers wanted his execution halted.

Berlow wrote about that case 18 months ago in The Atlantic Monthly, in “The Texas Clemency Memos,” which carried this introduction:

As the legal counsel to Texas Governor George W. Bush, Alberto R. Gonzales—now the White House counsel, and widely regarded as a likely future Supreme Court nominee—prepared fifty-seven confidential death-penalty memoranda for Bush’s review. Never before discussed publicly, the memoranda suggest that Gonzales repeatedly failed to apprise Bush of some of the most salient issues in the cases at hand.

You can read a reference to the Johnson case in a July 2003 Boston Globe story by Derrick Z. Jackson that foreshadows the behavior by Bush and Gonzales in the current torture debate. At the time, we didn’t know what was happening, or about to happen, at Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. The issue was Bush’s honesty. It’s still an issue, and so is Gonzales’s honesty. Here’s what Jackson wrote:

An article in the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly should further inform and inflame the debate over the honesty of President Bush. When Bush was governor of Texas he routinely denied last-ditch pleas for clemency on execution day by systematically hearing no evidence, seeing no evidence, and sealing himself away from any tragic possibility that any evil was done at all.

Back to Thursday’s hearing: Feingold pointed out that Johnson’s lawyer slept through the trial but that Gonzales, in his memo to Bush, wrote about the facts of the murders Johnson committed but not his new lawyers’ appeal of his death sentence. Best as I can do, here’s my hurried transcription of the Feingold-Gonzales showdown on this point:

Feingold: You described the facts of the murders but didn’t indicate the grounds for the [clemency] appeal.

Gonzales: We may have had numerous discussions. I don’t remember the specifics of the case.

What a liar! He “may have had” discussions with Bush about it? I “may have had” sexual relations with Catherine the Great and Cleopatra.

Gonzales told at least one reporter back in 2003 that he and Bush never spent more than 30 minutes on most clemency appeals. He wasn’t lying then. He is now. Context is everything when you’re trying to figure out such things as whether someone is telling the truth or at least trying to. Gonzales had no reason to lie back then about exactly what his discussions were with Governor Bush about Carl Johnson. Gonzales has plenty of reason to suddenly have a hazy memory now, because the clemency memos are a much bigger issue and he’s on a much bigger stage than when he was just answering a reporter’s questions.

Feingold, of course, was stunned by Gonzales’s answer and pointed out that the Johnson case was widely publicized at the time. Even though Bush was the hangingest governor in U.S. history, Gonzales would surely recall, with some degree of certainty, whether he and Bush had one of those supposed “rolling discussions” about Carl Johnson’s clemency appeal.

But then Feingold’s time was up, and Gonzales was let off the hook.

Each senator got only 10 minutes to question Gonzales during this “round” of questions.

Compare that with the weeks and weeks that Scott Peterson‘s lawyers got to put on his lame-ass case, or the months and months that O.J. Simpson‘s lawyers had.

And here we’re deciding who the attorney general of the U.S. is going to be. It’s our life-and-death decision.

The fact is, Gonzales could not stand up to real questioning. He couldn’t survive the vetting process of a parliamentary democracy, like Great Britain’s or Canada’s. Only in America.

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