SMILE WHEN YOU SAY THAT: Contrary to popular wisdom, it turns out patriotism is not necessarily the last refuge available to scoundrels; that distinction belongs to selective amnesia. But in the case of our memory-challenged Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, both appear to be true.

This week, Gonzales is taking his pathetic road show of leaky recollections about the firings of eight U.S. attorneys back to Capitol Hill for another assault on the collective credulity of anyone within earshot. During his first interrogation by the Senate Judiciary Committee, Gonzales claimed memory lapses no less than 71 times. His lack of recall was so total that one senator asked Gonzales whether he was even sure he made the decision to deep-six the eight federal prosecutors. “Senator, I recall making the decision,” Alberto answered. “When?” the senator asked. “Senator,” Gonzales replied, “I don’t recall when that decision was made.”

My beef is the nation’s squeaky-voiced top cop is such a pitiful prevaricator. If you’re going to bother lying, make it convincing. Anything less suggests disrespect. My suggestion for Gonzales-whom President Bush saw fit to nickname “Fredo”-is he take a couple pages out of Santa Barbara County’s recent crime book. Earlier this year, county residents witnessed the colorfully contorted performance of convicted killer Malinda Jones, who conspired with her cancer-stricken husband to off her daughter’s ex-husband because he insisted on being a real father to his young daughter, the Joneses’ grandchild. Throughout the proceedings, “Grandma Jones”-as she never was called-came down with a sudden case of amnesia. And her voice suddenly rose a few octaves, too. Jones’s poor attorney sought to argue that because of these drastic changes, his client was no longer capable of assisting in her own defense and deserved the loving care provided at Patton State Hospital for the criminally insane. In response, the prosecutor filed court papers calling Jones not just a fake, but an insult to sincerely crazy people everywhere. At that point, her voice returned to normal, and her memory-though still scattered-improved as well.

There is also the case of Ryan Hoyt, the sullen-faced, slack-jawed wannabe who spray-painted 14-year-old Nicholas Markowitz in the face with nine rounds from a Tech 9. Naturally, Hoyt maintained his innocence to authorities, but confessed to his mother while talking to her on the phone at county jail. His confession was caught by tape recorders at the county jail, creating an exceptionally inconvenient inconsistency for Hoyt and his team of attorneys-who turned out to be as corrupt as they were incompetent. Hoyt tried to finesse this problem by claiming a memory blackout that miraculously coincided with the period of time he happened to have confessed. Hoyt and Jones were hardly persuasive. Jones will be locked up for the rest of her natural born days and Hoyt, whose sentencing occurred in the immediate shadow of 9/11, was sentenced to death. But even Hoyt and Jones understood if they couldn’t tell the truth, they might as well go out with a whopper. Sadly, our attorney general’s lack of moral courage is exceeded only by his lack of theatrical flair.

Some people complain Gonzales “politicized” his office, as if the office is not inherently politicized. When Bill Clinton was elected president, his attorney general, Janet Reno, fired all the top prosecutors. President John F. Kennedy appointed his brother Bobby to the post to watch his back and act as his political attack dog. But no attorney general ever was as exuberantly political as Richard Nixon‘s hit man, John Mitchell. When the Department of Justice began investigating the dirty dealings of international financier Robert Vesco-who donated $200,000 to Nixon’s re-election campaign-Mitchell intervened on Vesco’s behalf. Mitchell’s subsequent conviction for obstruction of justice on this matter would later be overturned, but he spent actual time behind bars for his active role orchestrating the now infamous Watergate cover-up. When the Washington Post launched its series of investigative reports that ultimately brought down Nixon, Mitchell infamously said of the Post‘s owner, “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.” Stylistically, Gonzales pales in comparison. But when it comes to real action, he puts Mitchell to shame.

Gonzales has led the most systematic and effective assault on the media of any attorney general ever. Under his command, the Justice Department sent journalist-blogger Josh Wolf-a former Independent intern, by the way-to jail for seven months when Wolf refused to make “unpublished” video outtakes available to a federal grand jury. (At issue was video of demonstrators breaking the taillight of a police car. The feds claimed a dubious jurisdiction by asserting the police car had been purchased in part with federal tax dollars.) Gonzales’s mealy-mouthed evasions hide a righteously scary dude. Where Mitchell authorized illegal wiretaps against Nixon’s domestic critics, Gonzales authorized illegal taps and other forms of surveillance on American citizens both at home and abroad. While Mitchell merely talked about “preventative detention”-locking people up before they might commit a crime-Gonzales has gone much further, authorizing the indefinite detention and torture of “suspected enemy non-combatants.” Gone under Gonzales is any pretense that people under arrest are entitled to a hearing, which up until now had been kind of a cornerstone of American jurisprudence.

With Gonzales’s bloody fingerprints all over the Bill of Rights, you’d think the Senate Judiciary Committee would have ample reason to get rid of him. But they seem intent on catching up Gonzales on some relatively trivial technicality instead-like getting rid of the federal prosecutors. His days are obviously numbered. Those doubting this need only remember the nickname Bush gave him. As any American male old enough to sprout pubic hair knows by heart, “Fredo” is the brother Al Pacino orders to be murdered in The Godfather: Part II. In that movie, audiences had the good sense to feel immediately creeped out when Fredo is taken on a fishing trip from which he never returns. In real life, it’s taken us way too long. But before Bush can send Gonzales fishing, I intend to catch his final aria. Who knows? Maybe in the meantime, he’s learned how to sing.


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