After Gilligan Comes the Professor

If Alberto Gonzales was Gilligan, then Michael Mukasey is the Professor. At least that's my conclusion after watching Mukasey's testimony yesterday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

There's no simpler or more accurate way to portray the difference between the two men. One is an adult who is measured in his judgments and learned in the law. The other is a clown who knew only just enough to get himself and everyone else in a lot of trouble.

Gonzales, you'll remember, left lawmakers on Capitol Hill in stitches earlier this year following his pathetic-to-the-point-of-comedic testimony about the U.S. attorney scandal. Members of Congress quite literally laughed -- to his face! -- at Gonzales's preposterous answers even as President Bush stoically defended his buddy from Texas.

Yesterday, in contrast, there was no laughter from the committee as the president's nominee for attorney general testified. There was respect, even admiration, for a smart, tough, decent man who made it perfectly clear that the Crony Era at Justice is over.

Would he stand up to President Bush if the two disagreed about the legal precedent for or ramifications of a controversial policy? Check. Mukasey said he would try either to talk the president out of a bad idea -- good luck with that -- or quit, a la Elliot Richardson during the Watergate saga. Would Mukasey actually do that? Who knows. But it was nice to hear him say so.

Would he reject the government's cynical dance over torture policies? Check. Mukasey told the committee that the infamous torture memo, condoned and then never fully denounced by Gonzales, was "worse than a sin, it was a mistake," a phrase civil libertarians and other people of good will and common sense have longed to hear from someone in this administration.

Would he reject the partisanship and cronyism that infested the Gonzales Justice Department to the point where under-experienced zealots were making hiring decisions? Check. With a tone no doubt honed by decades on the federal bench, Mukasey said he would be very clear with his subordinates about putting professionalism and nonpartisan analysis ahead of politics. No one who heard that tone could reasonably believe that the judge didn't mean it.

There is no such thing as a perfect nominee, and Mukasey certainly showed that he already has mastered the politician's gift of being noncommital. He didn't say, for example, that the government's controversial domestic surveillance program is unconstitutional because, he said, he wasn't entirely familiar with the program. And he didn't denounce his earlier legal position on the government's ability to give terror detainees fewer rights than other combatants or prisoners. Over time, he will either earn the Democrats' trust on these points or disappoint them.

And I don't know about you, but I like the idea of an attorney general who seems to be smarter than I am. For obvious reasons, I never felt that way about Gonzales. But I feel that way about Mukasey. It is with no small amount of relief that I watched him show the committee and the rest of us that he is worthy of the office to which he has been nominated.

Will I always agree with his public pronouncements and policy choices? Of course not. But after nearly seven years, this administration finally has a true professional at the Justice Department -- and for that we all should be grateful.

By Andrew Cohen |  October 18, 2007; 6:30 AM ET
Previous: Mukasey Testimony: You Read it Here First | Next: Suddenly, Mum's Mukasey's Word

Comments

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Gonzales was a relatively moderate voice on the Texas Supreme Court, but even then, it was rumored in law circles that he discussed pending cases with the Governor's Mansion.

One would have forecast undying loyalty to GWB, but probably not the complete disaster that ensued.

Posted by: Mark in Austin | October 18, 2007 07:41 AM

A question for Justice insiders: was it not
Ashcroft who loaded Justice with kid lawyers from a "Christian" law school?

Posted by: Mark in Austin | October 18, 2007 07:44 AM

The metaphore kind of works. Bush is the doofus skipper who got everyone into the mess in the first place. Iraq invasion equals three-hour tour.

Posted by: Dave | October 18, 2007 08:40 AM

So is Condi Ginger or Maryanne? Cheney must be the storm that blew them off-course.

Posted by: Gomer | October 18, 2007 08:55 AM

Just think, 01.20.09. Surely we can't do worse than this bunch of thugs?!

Posted by: Katy-Did | October 18, 2007 09:33 AM

What about Mukasey standing by view that the AUMF gives the President authority to seize U.S. citizens and detain them forever without charge or trial? He had the temerity to say that even though his view was overruled in the Padilla case, that the Supreme Court's Hamdi decision reaffirms it!

You support this guy? You think putting a man who believes that it's legal and Constitutional to arrest and hold someone without charge or trial should be in charge of the nation's law enforcement?

Posted by: djmagaro | October 18, 2007 12:06 PM

Andrew, I don't think you're being fair to Gilligan. He was a clown too, but a kind one.

Posted by: lisatann | October 18, 2007 12:24 PM

Mark, you can say it.

It was the Regent University School of Law School. The Rev. Roberston's place.

Posted by: DC | October 18, 2007 04:43 PM

did you see todays answers at the hearing

Posted by: george | October 19, 2007 01:13 AM

has anyone read today hearings? Not much of a professor either

Posted by: george | October 19, 2007 01:16 AM

Between what I heard yesterday and the transcript, I am very disappointed and I do not see any good purpose in approving an AG who is unclear about waterboarding as torture and very clear that the Prez has inherent and apparently unbounded power.

Only his commitment to a professional Justice Dept. recommends him. That is not enough.

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