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An Attorney General Without Honor


Anthony Trollope was a very great novelist, a man who in a sense is a far better surveyor of English society in the Victorian Age than Charles Dickens. His works are filled with humor and wisdom and importantly, they never tire the reader. I hardly embark on a long trip without a volume of Trollope in my carry-on bag, and while his works are entertainments, they go far beyond that.

Of all the great population of characters that Trollope crafted, one has always stood out to me: Plantagenet Palliser. He is a wealthy but hardworking man who seems to embody all the virtues, and also many of the issues, surrounding the great English Whig tradition that played such a vital role in propelling England ahead of the balance of Europe in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Palliser is possessed of a very fine sense of honor, and he carries it proudly into the political arena. One of the greatest lines in all the Trollope library comes early in The Duke’s Children, when Palliser utters these words to his eldest son and heir, Lord Silverbridge:

The law is a great thing, — because men are poor and weak, and bad. And it is great, because where it exists in its strength, no tyrant can be above it. But between you and me there should be no mention of law as the guide of conduct. Speak to me of honour, and of duty, and of nobility; and tell me what they require of you.

Palliser serves as chancellor of the exchequer, tirelessly pursuing reforms (though always carefully measured and moderate reforms, in the Old Whig tradition), and as his patience and integrity are widely recognized, he emerges at length as prime minister.

Palliser is a socially awkward person, however, and he defers to his socially adept wife, Lady Glencora, to manage the entertainments that befit his station. Glencora proves a brilliant hostess, but she also becomes entangled in a series of embarrassing events – though nothing which is ever truly corrupt – that bring the prime minister tremendous grief. And in the end, even though he certainly has made no error or mistake, Palliser feels compelled to resign and bring the government to an end.

Recounting the story as he does, Trollope serves only to add more luster to the image of the Plantagenet Palliser as prime minister.

The fine sense of personal honor and integrity that mark Plantagenet Palliser may indeed be qualities which could only exist so unalloyed in the pages of a novel. But studying the history of England in the Victorian Age and the many decades that followed, there was – if not “honor” – then at least a strong sense of “decency” about public office. A person holding high office who did something which would bring disrepute about it would simply, quickly and quietly tender his resignation. Even across the Atlantic in the more rough-and-tumble world of American politics, something of this tradition has held true.

And now, in America of 2007, in the age of Bush, the notion that a tarnished official tenders his resignation as a simple act of decency seems in the minds of the new ruling class as “quaint” and “obsolete” as the Geneva Conventions.

Alberto Gonzales, the New York Times tells us is telling friends and acquaintances that he has “weathered the storm,” and indeed, the Republican echo chamber is now sounding this message very broadly – even as more evidence of his misconduct is uncovered almost every hour. The calculus of the Bush administration is transparent: as long as the focus is on Gonzales, Karl Rove – the real mastermind of Purgegate – is safe. So let Gonzales dig in and fight it out. In other words, the safety of Karl Rove is more important than the integrity of the Department of Justice. Indeed, more important than justice itself. As the Times writes:

Mr. Gonzales can cling to his office as long as the president supports him and Congress does not impeach him. The White House clearly has reasserted some party discipline since his Senate appearance the other week, when several Republicans called for his resignation. But that does not mean it is in anyone’s interest for him to stay on. The Justice Department is too important to be saddled with a year and a half more of such shoddy leadership.

And this raises another question, namely: what is the proper response of Congress in the face of conduct which can only be called indecent? The Seattle Post-Intelligencer offers the right array of tactical responses, I think.

Congress must pursue its own investigations, even if it might lead to impeachment for Gonzales or others; and, as information emerges from internal investigations by the Justice Department’s inspector general and others, Congress should be ready to create a mechanism for a special prosecutor. Gonzales has renewed assertions that the removals were appropriate. That’s insulting to the public, Justice’s professionalism and the fired prosecutors…

The system must emerge stronger precisely where it has been attacked. University of Washington Law Professor Stewart Jay says that, at least with divided government, the Senate could set professional qualifications for approving any U.S. attorney appointments. Congress should do so, regardless of party control.

As old Palliser perfectly understood, it is unseemly and unwise to allow personal vanity to override the need for institutions that must reflect a democratic society’s essential values. Their role in the nation’s happiness and stability are too important. The decent thing is for Gonzales to resign. But expecting that a man who is a principal author of the nation’s torture policy, who authorized illegal wiretapping and extraordinary renditions will do the decent thing is almost laughable. It rests therefore with Congress to do the decent thing in his stead.

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