Wednesday, July 25, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The attorney general's bedside manner

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales portrays himself as the piano player in the bordello, unaware of what is going on around him. The insulting act failed again.

His appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday did nothing to clear up a tangle of issues or change our opinion he should resign or be fired. The Justice Department, a proud and professional agency, is losing top legal talent under Gonzales' leadership. He fumbles with matches near constitutionally flammable disputes about domestic intelligence-gathering and the White House's response to congressional inquiries into the sacking of nine federal prosecutors.

Last spring in another session on Capitol Hill, Gonzales said several dozen times he could "not recall" events or details. His faulty memory was impugned by subsequent testimony by underlings. His memory was slightly better yesterday, and the results were all the more dismaying.

As President Bush's legal counsel, Gonzales and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card visited then-Attorney General John Ashcroft in 2004 in the hospital as Ashcroft recovered from surgery. Gonzales claims they did not press Ashcroft to recertify the president's controversial surveillance program because the attorney general was in bad shape. Ashcroft's deputy and then-acting AG disputes Gonzales' version of the bedside meeting.

Gonzales' Justice Department is making a case that President Bush's advisers are beyond the reach of congressional subpoenas. The argument leaves constitutional experts slack-jawed at the brazenness of the claim.

No less dismayed are congressional Republicans, who are left sputtering by Gonzales' apparent issues with the truth, his stewardship of the Justice Department and the looming showdown over the prerogatives of Congress to assert checks and balances on the executive branch.

Ranking Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., talked about retaining a special prosecutor to focus on the firing of federal attorneys who apparently refused to skew election inquiries for political advantage.

Keeping Gonzales as attorney general only promises more dissembling and deceit, eroding morale at the Justice Department and spurring a looming constitutional crisis.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company


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