All The President’s Men was on HBO yesterday afternoon. For those of you under thirty, it’s a movie starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman that tells the story of how Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the Watergate story in the Washington Post in 1973. It’s a good film and for those of us who remember the era it’s nostalgic not just for the return to the era of typewriters, dial telephones, and wide lapels, but it also reminds us of real hardscrabble journalism in a time of bareknuckle politics. George W. Bush and his frat brothers are no match for the mob that ran the White House and the Nixon re-election campaign of 1972.
One of those men was John Mitchell, the Attorney General of the United States in the first Nixon administration. Mitchell had been a friend of Mr. Nixon and colleague in a New York law firm, and he maintained a powerful loyalty to his friend. In his role as AG he turned the Justice Department into a powerful wing of the Republican political machine, cracking down on anti-war demonstrators under the guise of “law and order” – the catchphrase that was the 1970’s version of the “war on terror.” Enforcement of the law took second place to advancing the political agenda of Nixon’s so-called “Silent Majority,” which mainly consisted of harassing long-haired hippies. In 1972 Mr. Mitchell resigned his post to run the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP) and soon became a key player in the covert actions and subsequent cover-up of what became known as Watergate. He eventually pled guilty to a variety of charges but went to his grave claiming that he did nothing illegal and that he had no knowledge of any illegal activities that were attributed to CREEP or the people like G. Gordon Liddy who were paid by CREEP.
Is it just some karmic connection that John Mitchell comes to mind when the name of Alberto Gonzales comes up? Here is a man who has demonstrated that he is pliable to the politics of his party rather than the law of the land. His record in Texas shows that he tailors his opinions to will of the political wind and is fully capable of turning a blind eye to black-letter law when it proves to be inconvenient or “quaint.” Mr. Gonzales’s record shows that while he is quick to know what is legal or not, his perception of what is right is lacking, and as it has often been pointed out here and in other venues, just because something is legal does not make it right.
We expect the Justice Department to be the voice of law enforcement in this country, regardless of who is the plaintiff, defendant, or president. Only when the Justice Department speaks for the law and not for the administration can we hope to achieve this, and there have been serious questions raised about the ability of Mr. Gonzales to do that. The Senate should take their role of advising and consenting seriously, and in this case, advise the President to get someone else.