Is Alberto Gonzales stupid? That was the question posed at dinner last
night. My uncle felt that there was no question that he is. I disagreed. I
think that - within limited parameters - he's brilliant. And the proof is a
moment from one of his performances in a hearing that I excerpted in my new
film, Taxi to the Dark Side, about the Bush Administration's torture policy.
(The film premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 28.)
Gonzales "brilliant career" has a limited focus: serving his patron,
advancing his position and surviving. He's been called "Fredo," recalling
Michael Corleone's brother in The Godfather. But that's wrong: Fredo betrayed his brother, never rose to a position at the seat of power and
ended his career at the bottom of a lake. Gonzales is more like Tom Hagen.
But that's not quite right either. In some ways, he resembles Levrenti
Beria, the man who ran Stalin's NKGB in a sycophantic way meant to confirm
Stalin's conspiracy theories. But perhaps the most compelling analogy is
Gollum: a creature pulled hopelessly and inexorably by the lure of power.
Gonzales is the consummate bureaucrat. With the moral direction of a
cockroach, he skitters around in the footnotes of the law, avoiding
fundamental principles, in an effort to survive. Let's remember: this is the
man who told Arlen Specter that there was no affirmative right to habeas
corpus in the Constitution, only a prohibition against its suspension.
Let's admit: that's technically correct and meaningless. His brilliance
comes in his extraordinary ability to remain determined, unflappable, and
dilatory in the face of withering criticism. There's no smoking gun with
Alberto; in fact, by intention, there's no there there. And that's how he
eludes being stampeded out of the government.
This is the lawyer, formerly employed by Enron, who hid Bush's DUI
conviction and prepared 57 death-penalty memoranda - all urging death and
many ignoring clear evidence for clemency - for Bush's virtual assembly line
of executions. (As noted in the Atlantic, "During Bush's six years as
governor 150 men and two women were executed in Texas - a record unmatched by
any other governor in modern American history.") This is the man who, as
counsel to the President, advised his client how to commit a crime against
humanity: torture. Yet, even knowing that, he managed to keep his head down
in the midst of evasions and obfuscations long enough to be confirmed the
leading law enforcement official of the United States. Once installed, he
appears to have been far less interested in serving the Constitution - his
real job - than his political bosses. In doing so, he has corrupted the
rule of law and, through his belief in executive power, traded the
principles of the Magna Carta for Machiavelli's The Prince, a handbook for
maintaining power and justifying evil actions if they serve a just purpose.
His brilliant moment in Taxi to the Dark Side comes when he is being
grilled by Senator Carl Levin and Senator John McCain about the rules of
evidence proposed by the administration in its version of the Military
Commissions Act. Sen. Levin recites a litany of torture techniques - including waterboarding and forced nudity - and asks Gonzales if testimony
obtained through these techniques would be admissible in the military
commissions proposed by the Bush Administration. "Well sir, I think most
importantly, I can't imagine such testimony would be
reliable," says Gonzales. He cleverly sounds like he has answered the question,
but he hasn't, and so the proceedings move along.
Then John McCain asks Gonzales if testimony obtained through illegal
inhumane treatment would be prohibited. After this question, Gonzales
pauses, starts to speak, stops, seems to search for mendacious inspiration - does he hear the words "my precious"? - tries to speak again and then
finally, after a chilling pause of 20 seconds he answers, "The concern that
I would have about such a prohibition is what does it mean, how you define
Brilliant! Torture: it depends on how you define it. The answer is insipid,
immoral and obscene.
But, in a Machiavellian context, it is not wrong.