Chairman John Conyers of the House Judiciary Committee in justifying the subpoenaing of two former top White House aides said that this was not just a request but a “demand” by the American people, who are burning for answers about the firings of nine U.S. attorneys, who, it seems necessary to mention once again, serve at the pleasure of the president of the United States.
Well, guess what congressman. You know better than anyone that while there may be some demand from some, the downfall of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is not very high on the list of goals for a vast majority of Americans. In fact, most of them recognize the subpoenas of former White House counsel Harriet Miers and political aide Sara Taylor for what they are — politically inspired attempts to embarrass the president.
There may be an even more sinister motive in this continuing dogged effort by Conyers and his Senate counterpart Patrick Leahy to confront the White House. Over the years, almost since President Bush took office, Conyers has made little secret about his desire to impeach the president. So far he’s been thwarted by party leaders, but the longtime liberal Democrat from Michigan clearly views the Justice department “scandal” as the possible catalyst for reaching that goal.
The furor over the fired U.S. attorneys has dragged on for months, fed by almost hysterical minute-by-minute media coverage, including a barrage of editorials demanding that Gonzales, who admittedly has made a hash of the way the firings were handled, resign post haste. But that level of attention has been confined mainly inside the Capital Beltway with the vast continent beyond more concerned about problems from immigration to Iraq than the alleged politicization of the Justice department.
If Bush in his last 18 months in office seems an elusive if not impossible target for Conyers and Leahy, Karl Rove, the hated villain of two presidential elections, isn’t. Right now Rove seems to be where congressional Democrats are aiming. Few presidential aides have been more obsessively despised by the opposition. Even H.R. Haldeman of Watergate infamy, the chief of staff for President Nixon often compared to a vicious Doberman, fared better.
Taylor, as former White House political director, worked for Rove and figured in the dismissal of the attorneys, at least one of whom was replaced by a former Rove assistant. There is very little doubt that the firings were an ill-advised exercise in both political and ideological purity stemming, in part at least, from Republican complaints that certain U.S. attorneys weren’t moving quickly enough to prosecute alleged Democratic voter fraud. So far, however, the Democrats have been unable to prove that the firings were connected to any effort to influence a specific criminal investigation.
This failure to produce a smoking gun that could lead to who knows where is what Leahy and Conyers obviously hope to rectify by subpoenaing Miers and Taylor and demanding e-mails and other material from the White House. With determination that can at least partially be attributed to getting revenge for years of frustration under Republican leadership, they seem ready to carry on this time consuming, constitutionally questionable assault until Bush walks out the door of the White House for the last time.
Meanwhile, Americans should be concerned about what this over-hyped wrangle has done to what little comity remains in the Senate. It has so poisoned the atmosphere that it is doubtful many of the growing number of judicial vacancies can be filled by Leahy’s committee where advise and consent on nominations begins. The White House has been slow to send up their choices in the face of extended delays and hostility. Any nominee considered the least bit conservative would have little chance of winning Senate Judiciary Committee approval at this stage.
Should the president decide to claim executive privilege despite threats from the committees to go to court, the constitutional confrontation with the White House over the subpoenas and other demands has the potential of so increasing the bitterness and lack of cooperation between the two parties that it would have a debilitating impact on any hope for meaningful compromise on major issues. Then the American people may begin paying attention and “demand” a solution from both sides.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)