Sometimes Heat Is As Good as Light
Nearly six months ago,* I made a conscious decision to ratchet up my commentary and analysis of Alberto R. Gonzales in a way that would make clear my disdain for him as a public official and my dissatisfaction with his tenure as Attorney General. And, for the past few months, as any regular reader of this space knows, my criticism of the U.S. Attorney scandal, and Gonzales' role as leader of the Justice Department, has been unstintingly harsh and pointed.
For this I have been applauded in some circles and heavily criticized in others. Some of you have encouraged me to continue to speak boldly on the topic while others of you have blasted me for offering what you considered biased and one-sided views of the situation. Some of you have asked me to speak out similarly on other law-related topics while others of you have wondered not unfairly whether I was harming my reputation as an "analyst" by so strongly taking a position on a contested and contentious squabble that beyond its legal manifestation also had an intense political component as well.
*Disclosure: No, your eyes aren't deceiving you. This post briefly ran yesterday morning before I replaced it with my "Good Riddance" post. But I think it's worth posting again, this time for good.
Now that Gonzales has resigned, I think it is an appropriate time for me to explain to you why I did what I did, why I don't expect to do it very often in the future, and why it's important (and in my mind altogether appropriate and necessary) sometimes for a columnist to express genuine outrage about a particular story, subject or series of circumstances. [Editor's note: Click here for a washingtonpost.com interview in which Andrew Cohen discusses his handling of Alberto Gonzales's tenure as Attorney General.] Straight-line correspondents may not be able to tell you how they really feel about a particular story. But in this case I believe that consistently telling you how I truly felt about Gonzales' stewardship of the Justice Department was the only true way to communicate to you the depth of the problem and the width of its implications.
I did not make lightly the decision to become a fierce critic of the Attorney General. I have always believed that my job as an analyst is to shed more light than heat on a topic -- to provide you with enough context and perspective so that you can make your own informed judgments about a particular legal issue or event. And I recognize that when you become too subjective about a particular topic, or when you write about it in a particularly conclusive way, you run the risk of cutting into the reservoir of credibility you have with news consumers. After all, one person's utterly lame pol is always, fair or not, another person's honorable politician.
But there are times in the life of a "beat journalist" -- my "beat" being the law -- when the knowledge and experience you've gathered over the years -- in my case, 10 years -- tells you that something is so horribly off-kilter with a particular person, institution or practice that it cries out for a different kind of coverage, a different level of analysis; a different depth of commentary. And when that time comes, it seems to me, the commentator has a responsibility to explain forcefully and with passion why what is occurring is so different from and so much worse than what has occurred before. Anyone who watched Gonzales' unintentionally comedic appearances before the Senate Judiciary Committee this spring and summer knows what I mean.
And so it was for me with Gonzales. His tenure as Attorney General, on matters of both substance and procedure, was in my mind so atrocious and so disrespectful to the men and women who care deeply about the Justice Department that I felt it necessary to stridently defend them at his expense. His lack of independence from the White House on critical matters of constitutional law -- say, the legality of the domestic surveillance program, for example - -was so glaring and self-destructive that I felt it needed to be highlighted for you so that you, too, might be roused from slumber into outrage. His utter lack of leadership at the Department -- not knowing which federal prosecutors were to be fired, he says -- was so unacceptable that I felt the typical "he-said/she said" analysis would not have been able to do credit to the incompetence at work in the corridors of power.
I took no joy in going after the Attorney General the way that I did and I take absolutely no satisfaction now that he is gone. That's because there are no winners in this story. There are only losers. The damage he caused to the Justice Department, to the rule of law and to the Constitution itself is so vast that it will take a long while to mend. And I cannot help but think about how different things might be today if only President George W. Bush had selected a qualified attorney general in 2005 (there were then and are now plenty of Republican candidates) instead of selecting his buddy, a hack, whose only qualification for the job was that he would willingly do the White House's bidding.
I do not plan to continue to cover the Justice Department beat the same way now that Gonzales is gone. I plan to go back now to that "more light than heat" paradigm that seems to have worked well for both you and me over the years. And I pray that the new attorney general does so much better than his predecessor that the next 16 months are for us a virtual love fest. Let me put it another way: Although it may not make for good copy, I would always rather be able to praise good governance when it occurs than to criticize bad governance when it unfolds.
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