The old Austin gang and the law

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All presidents, to a degree, play politics with U.S. attorneys’ jobs. Bill Clinton did so with relish. But it is revealing, if not shocking, to see vivid evidence of George Bush’s contempt for (or, at best, willful ignorance of) the idea that justice should be administered impartially, even by political appointees. Most presidents pay lip service to the concept of independence, even in private discussions. The Bush Administration didn’t bother.

Having covered Bush for years, I know where that dismissive attitude comes from: his family, Texas, his inner circle and his own experience – or lack of it.

Bushes see themselves as men of action and profit. As a rule, they tend to loathe or dismiss people who monitor and measure thought and behavior: reporters, shrinks, accountants and lawyers. Bushes go into business (sometimes with MBAs), never law. (Maybe the next generation will have a different attitude: George P. Bush, son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, earned a J.D. at the University of Texas in 2003.)

Texas law and the Austin gang
In the Awl Bidness – in which Bush the First succeeded modestly and Bush the Second repeatedly fell on his face – lawyers were an annoyance at best. In Midland-Odessa, where they lived (and where Bush the Second went to public schools) deals were made on handshakes. In West Texas, pride was in the gusher or in the shrewd deal, not in winning a lawsuit. Lawyers were for sissies.

There is no place in America in which the law – lawyers, judges and courts - is more political than Texas. A tradition that began as a sort of noble 19th century populism there has long since metastasized into a money-powered blood sport.

Judges are elected in Texas. Karl Rove made his fortune not by running George W. Bush for office, but by training, building and running slates of conservative Republican judges. If the judges are purely political, what does that make the lawyers who practice in front of them? Surely not just “officers of the court.”

The Austin Gang – Bush, Rove, Alberto Gonzales and Harriet Miers – saw the legal world as something to control, if for no other reason than if they did not, the Trial Lawyers – the backbone of the modern Texas Democratic Party – would.

Gonzales made his bones literally keeping Bush out of court when, as governor, Bush was called to jury duty. Had Bush been subject to questioning by attorneys over his suitability to serve, he would have had to reveal that he had been arrested for drunk driving. Not a good thing to do before a presidential campaign. Gonzales managed to get the Boss out of the jury pool.

As for Harriet Miers, she was in charge of knowing and protecting the Boss’s finances. Bush surrounded himself with what he called “mother hens.” He had Karen Hughes for communications, Miers for personal legal matters. She had personal attorney-client privilege, and was a zealous guardian.

U.S. attorneys as political prizes
This was the crew – Bush, Rove, Miers and Gonzales – that returned to the White House after the 2004 election and saw a cookie jar on the kitchen counter – a cookie jar, they realized, that had 93 tasty cookies (U.S. attorneys) in it. These would be wonderful political prizes for Bush and Rove to distribute – even though all of the current U.S. attorneys were first-term Bush appointees.

Students of history (and readers of the Wall Street Journal editorial page) remember that Bill Clinton, upon becoming president, asked for the resignation of all 93 U.S. attorneys. It was an unprecedented, sweeping move, and prompted anti-Clinton theorists to charge that he was trying to cover up various land and legal deals in Arkansas and trying to protect Democrats in Congress.  But it was also true that the Republicans had been in charge for 12 years, so even GOP leaders didn’t squawk that much. Besides, the Democrats were in charge of Congress, and they weren’t about to investigate Clinton.

But the Austin Gang in 2005 considered doing something that neither Clinton in 1997 – nor, for that matter, Richard Nixon in 1973 – had done: fire all that USAs at the start of a second term. Nixon asked for the resignation of all of his cabinet after his second-term win, but didn’t propose the same sweeping measure for the USAs.

According to the email traffic, this idea was floated by Miers in 2005. “It was a hare-brained idea,” a prominent GOP lawyer told me – so hair-brained, in fact, that even the uber-pol Rove shot it down as over the top.

There are those who think it was actually less damaging than what the White House eventually did do: which was, in concert with the Justice Department, to rank the USAs by political loyalty to Bush. The fact that they were casual and cocky enough to put this on paper and in emails shows just  how little they understood – or cared about – the traditions of law they are supposed to guard.

The fact that Gonzales initially told Congress that the White House had nothing to do with the process shows something else: he forgot who holds the subpoena power now.