My late father, a government official, liked to say half-in-jest that it might be cheaper to pay the bureaucracy to stay home; it would save the country a good deal of money and damage. This is as good a prescription for a Congress now getting ready to confirm Michael Mukasey as Attorney General. His qualification, according to Charles Schumer, one of his Democratic backers, who holds this truth to self-sufficient: Michael Mukasey is not Alberto Gonzales. Well, that is right up there with the proof of fitness proffered by another AG, “I have not been indicted” (Edwin Meese). According to Schumer, Mukasey would bring back confidence and elan to the Justice Department. How? By couching Richard Nixon’s “when the president does it, then it is legal” in loftier language? This is rather like saying that Cheney would be an improvement on Bush.
Gonzales was part-goon, part-dufus, revealing an intellectual dimension rivaled only by his master’s while also mirroring the latter’s other quality — an ethereal insouciance untethered to any record of competence. Michael Mukasey is not Alberto Gonzales. Ergo, according to Schumer and Feinstein, he is the man for the job. Why, in a country of 300 million, home to a lopsided number of lawyers, we cannot find someone who will uphold the Constitution unequivocally, is one more mystery of our times.
As happens frequently the larger issue has been crowded out by a smaller one. For all its repugnance, waterboarding is only a symptom of a government serenely contemptuous of the law. What if Mukasey had allowed that waterboarding was torture? Would it change his non-stance on the violation of the FISA? Does he think warrantless wiretapping that has already taken place is illegal? Does he think detention without trial is ok? Habeas corpus? The War Powers Act?
All equally essential questions that any non-crony attorney general would have no difficulty answering. But how could our politicians, who themselves are ambiguous on these issues (or else they would already have filibustered all government business until every one of these usurpations and violations was reversed) go beyond mild pleasantries and occasional grandstanding? What can be hoped for from a Congress itself busy giving away the store, passing retroactive justification for Bush and Cheney’s merry devastations of the law?
It is sobering to reflect that with so many Senators, a disavowal of waterboarding by Mukasey would have clinched their support. It is an indication of how completely apolitical is our political class, which can comprehend nothing but commerce. Politics is about power. Congressional authority has been disemboweled during the Bush term; neither Republicans nor Democrats have even shown resentment, not to talk of fight.
General Pervez Musharraf, imposing an emergency on Pakistan last week and suspending the constitution, regretted that he had to do so out of necessity, in part because other branches of government were playing an adversarial role. In the US Constitution, the Congress is designed to act as an adversary placing checks on the executive. Today, Pakistan’s protesting opposition has been put under house arrest. Ours is busy colluding with the usurpers.
Give us time, give us time, said Musharraf in his speech, appealing to the West; we are learning slowly, our democracy is not yet as evolved as yours. Musharraf is right — Pakistan is still a mere child in these matters. Clearly his friend and financier in the White House has not let him in on the big secret — in an ‘evolved’ democracy, you can get all this power without declaring an emergency!
NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN is a writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.