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The Purge: Mayberry Without Machiavelli

03/21/2007 04:55 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

One striking thing about the U.S. Attorney purge is just how objectively pointless the whole thing was. Even if the goal was to politicize the justice system in various ways, there appears to be no coherent political goal behind it, no single reason why these particular eight U.S. Attorneys were fired last December.

Various reasons are becoming apparent. Some are potentially criminal, such as the cases of Iglesias and Lam, in which investigations (or the lack thereof) raised political hackles. Others (Cummins) appear to be pure patronage. Still others remain murky - and if there is a legitimate reason for them, we haven't heard it.

It's not the possible chicanery, but the murkiness and incoherence that are peculiar here. The purge certainly bears the signs of a White House power play. And indeed, an exercise of power is the only single, unifying explanation for it. Kyle Sampson argues as much in an email: "There is some risk we'll lose the authority, but if we don't ever exercise it what's the point of having it?"

Because they had the power, they should use it. When you get down to it, "because we can" is a big part of what got us into the Iraq war and the habitual envelope-pushing on presidential authority. Power must be exercised for its own sake, unmoored from custom, real-world experience, and from institutional constraints. (In other words, a fantasy.)

But the purge power play had none of the finesse or audacity we've seen in the past, when the sheer cheek of some Bush misadventure would be enough to distract the media from its outrageousness.

The White House had proven too many times that it does not much care about the normal activities of a presidential administration: shaping actual policies that make government agencies function, putting ideas into action to address problems. But through it all, most of us thought the Bush administration could still "do" politics. Rove might be down, but he shouldn't be counted completely out, etc. etc. But apparently that's no longer the case. In the twilight of the Bush administration, the combination of adolescent pique and incompetence that characterized all its major initiatives has finally consumed even its vaunted political operations. The hacks have won the final battle. Machiavelli has abandoned Mayberry.

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