Sometimes, there is little difference between the illegal and legal; between violation and right; between the strictly prohibited and the merely unethical. This is something politicians understand all too well. Politics exists in a murky state, constantly testing the bounds of the law behind closed doors. There is much allowed within the law, and even more when only few are aware the law is being broken. Here is a fundamental disconnect between politics and real life. Politics is Manichaean. It is also Machiavellian. Politics are these and many more things, but it is missing one prominent thing that permeates the wellspring of human life, and that thing is decency.
United States Attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president. They are all appointed by him, and are expected to carry out his prosecutorial priorities, within the law. If a president chooses to focus the energies of the Justice Department onto illegal narcotics, then prosecutors lax in this area can expect to be ousted. Were a president to make organized crime a focus, or gangs, and a prosecutor fell behind in an area of the country rife with such violations, then they would understandably be replaced. And, were an administration to use prosecutorial power to indict members of the other political party in the run-up to elections in order to solidify its hold on power, then any U.S. Attorney that refused to file frivolous or baseless indictments, or waste precious Justice Department resources on witch hunts, can reasonably be assured that their services will no longer be required.
That last illustration requires a qualifier. So far, there has been debate about whether anything illegal has gone on in the recent firings of U.S. Attorneys by the Justice Department. But it does appear to be a purge based on partisan politics. The fired prosecutors all appear to have one thing in common: their integrity remains intact. They refused to use their offices as charnel houses of partisan politics, and were punished for it. They refused to take part in a skewed roundup of vulnerable Democrats before the 2006 elections. One firing, that of Carol Lam, looks to be punishment for sending Republican Congressman Duke Cunningham to jail.
The firings are a scandal. They are distasteful. They disgust not because of the fate of the unfortunate prosecutors who lost their jobs in a purge, but because the scandal is yet another window into how the Bush administration operates, how it applies its unique ideology of unitary executive power, and woe be to anyone, friend or foe, who steps in its path. The Justice Department, and by extension, the White House, had hoped that no one would notice the firings. One prominent prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, has been able to keep his job despite having spent the last few years of his life investigating the Bush administration because firing him would have been illegal, as it would have been a clear attempt to derail a federal investigation.
The firings are a scandal, and Alberto Gonzales will lose his job over them. Or he will hang on, an easy target for criticism and blame, like Donald Rumsfeld before the axe finally fell the day after the elections. Either way, he will stay until he can no longer provide cover for the president. The day he resigns, or is fired, is when one can know that day has come.
Earlier I wrote that decency has a prominent place in public life. It’s an easy thing to point out the inherent nastiness of human nature, the animal cruelty we have at times perfected to industrious heights. Yes, we can be bad people, and society is the greatest gift we have been given in the unending battle to moderate our basest desires and foster cooperation. Our decency should be measured not by the havoc produced by the small number of evil people who have wielded power in our history, but by the fact the majority of us can still feel revulsion at the bumbling incompetency of an administration mired in its own morass of unethical behavior. There is the disconnect I mentioned above. The average person does not think to wield power like a cudgel to keep those without it in line. The type of behavior that is necessary to gain that power in the first place makes the idea of ethics an unfortunate paradox.
This is a scandal because firing those prosecutors was wrong, plain and simple. It is the rare case when the difference between right and wrong truly is akin to the difference between black and white. There is none of the murkiness. No amount of spin, no amount of nuanced argument can make the firings seem justified. Alberto Gonzales, and anyone else involved in the firings should be either fired themselves or forced to resign. It’s the only decent thing to do.