No Comment — May 19, 2007, 5:21 pm

“I’d Rather Trade Places with Jose Padilla”

The Bush Administration, entering into its last, lame-duck year, has the usual difficulties finding qualified help. Add to that public approval levels as low as have ever been seen. And consider finally what must be the least desirable place to work in the entire administration: Alberto Gonzales’s Department of Justice.

Truly Gonzales has performed an act of remarkable alchemy. He inherited what was arguably the most highly respected agency in the U.S. Government. For decades, the best and brightest law school graduates of any generation would battle over the handful of openings at main Justice and with various U.S. attorneys offices. No longer. Today, association with the Gonzales Justice Department is feared as a taint on any lawyer’s résumé. And here’s the best evidence I have seen of this so far. When asked if he would take Paul J. McNulty’s slot as Deputy Attorney General, the man who ran the Office of Legal Policy for John Ashcroft, Viet Dinh, has an instant response: “I’d rather trade places with Jose Padilla,” he says, referring to a man who was tortured and placed in solitary confinement in the Naval brig in South Carolina.

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Nobody in academia had ever witnessed or even heard of a performance like this before. In just a few years, in the early 1950s, a University of Pennsylvania graduate student — a student, in his twenties — had taken over an entire field of study, linguistics, and stood it on its head and hardened it from a spongy so-called “social science” into a real science, a hard science, and put his name on it: Noam Chomsky.

At the time, Chomsky was still finishing his doctoral dissertation for Penn, where he had completed his graduate-school course work. But at bedtime and in his heart of hearts he was living in Boston as a junior member of Harvard’s Society of Fellows, and creating a Harvard-level name for himself.

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