Politics, Lies, and 93 v. 8

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David Brooks has an excellent column today, and not for the usual reasons that liberals praise Brooks (and he drives conservatives crazy): because he comes halfway toward us. It’s because, in discussing the US Attorneys story, he nails a distinction that I, at least, was struggling with. (This is undoubtedly because I’m old and used up and generally flaccid, as many of the commentors have noted. Not that I’m bitter. At least Eric Alterman still likes me. I hope.) Brooks’s distinction is between two different conceptions of the word “political.” Or rather, like most nice clear distinctions, there actually is a spectrum of meaning. US Attorneys are supposed to be political in the sense that in performing their duties they reflect the policies of the president who appointed them. If the president believes strongly in prosecuting pornographers, he is not just within his rights but within his duties to fire a prosecutor who ignores those cases. If, at the other extreme, he wants a prosecutor to drop a case against a large contributor, that is political in the bad sense. And as Brooks says, the eight US Attorneys in the present controversy seem to offer a mixed bag.Yes, of course, even one overt attempt to suppress a legitimate prosecution for corruption is one too many—it doesn’t have to be a majority of the eight to be an outrage.
And I remain astounded that people find the Clinton analogy not merely wrong but preposterous. There are plenty of differences, but it’s important to try the shoe on the other foot. Sure, I see the argument that a clean sweep is less suspicious than selective defenestration. But I still have to wonder: If Karl Rove had gotten his way and Bush had fired all 93 US Attorneys at the beginning of his second term, would you (that’s you, Brad DeLong, and Kevin Drum, among others) actually have shrugged it off as no big deal? If Clinton had fired just eight, would you have been hammering him for corrupting justice? Would the fact that the firings came in the middle of the president’s term loom quite so large? If one of the prosecutors had just sent a Democratic Congressman to jail, would you be totally untempted by the White House explanation that the real cause was, say, a reluctance to prosecute abortion-clinic protesters under RICO? Or is there a humongous, crucial distinction between firing prosecutors in in your first term and doing it in your second? As the Church Lady used to say: “How convenient.”
If you need a demonstration of the perils of caring only about whose ox is gored, study the Wall Street Journal’s editorials on US Attorney-gate (or practically any other subject). The Journal gaily notes a double standard among those who dismissed the Clinton firings while obsessing about the Bush ones, but it is unable to extricate itself from its own double standard of outrage at the Clinton firings combined with indignant defense of the Bush ones.
Rereading what I wrote a couple days ago in this blog, one thing does bother me (and AnaMarie rightly called me on it, as did a couple of commentors). I seem to have displayed a cavalier attitude about official lying. I stand by my description of the administration as “comically mendacious”—anyone who hasn’t been entertained by the tango of mid-course corrections is missing a real treat. But it’s also serious. I do tend to think that the solution is in electoral politics—punish liars by voting against them– and not in subpoenas and hearings and special prosecutors and impeachment talk and all the other paraphernalia of scandal.