Ruth Marcus tries to find the common thread between Alberto Gonzales and Paul Wolfowitz. This seems to be the fad among Washington Post columnists. Yesterday, Eugene Robinson tried to link Gonzales and Wolfowitz (along with Karl Rove) and Richard Cohen produced a specious piece trying to equate Gonzales and Mike Nifong. The theory may be that piling on more non-scandals (or in Cohen’s case a real scandal) will give the Gonzales affair the weight it currently lacks.
There is actually little in common between the flaps over Gonzales and Wolfowitz. Gonzales was never a particularly strong choice for Attorney General, and he has failed to distinguish himself in the job. Moreover, though there’s no evidence that he did anything wrong in connection with the dismissal of the eight U.S. attorneys, he was unable to defend the decisions effectively. Worse, he made inaccurate statements about them. While none of this compels the president to fire him, there’s a case to be made that this would be a good move.
Wolfowitz is another story. As far as I can tell, he’s performing his job well. And, as Marcus acknowledges, he was essentially required by his ethics committee to make the decision about how his girlfriend would be compensated for her ouster, which occurred due to no fault of hers. His decision appears to have been reasonable under the circumstances, and the ethics committee head apparently said that it was. Finally, unlike Gonzales, Wolfowitz has not botched the defense of his actions.
What then is the common thread here? Marcus says it’s the fact that the decision about whether to fire the two officials is being made without regard to what’s best for the institution.
I would describe the common thread a bit differently. Both men are the subject of a concerted attack by people who dislike them intensely. In Gonzales’ case, it’s the congressional Democrats, aided by the liberal mainstream media. In Wolfowitz’s case, it’s people within his institution, aided by the liberal mainstream media. In both cases, the drumbeat (not the merits) has become in part or in whole the basis for advocating the ouster. Gonzales, we are told, cannot do the Justice Department’s business because he must spend too much time preparing to testify before Congress. Wolfowitz, we are told, cannot battle corruption at the World Bank because so many people have been advised, incorrectly, that he’s corrupt.
But if these self-generating reasons are grounds for terminating top officials, where are the limits to this game? Congress, aided by the media, can always blow the smoke of scandal and (when controlled by the party the president does not belong to) force hearings. Similarly, the enemies of strong, reform minded administrators can often embarrass these figures, again with help from the media. Then, folks like Ruth Marcus can claim that, the merits aside, the official under attack must be removed for the good of his agency. But it is not good for agencies, or for presidents, to be played this way.
Bill Clinton devoted huge amounts of time to defending himself from the various charges (including a valid perjury charge) that swirled around his administration. There is reason to believe that it distracted him from dealing effectively with the rise of al Qaeda. Perhaps Ruth Marcus wrote a column saying Clinton should be removed from office for the good of the country. If not, then it’s difficult to take seriously her argument that Gonzales and Wolfowtiz are too damaged to remain on the job.
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