Washington -- The oldest legal dodge in the political witness testimony game is to simply say, "I can't remember." The Bush administration did not invent this hoary old practice, but his chosen few have certainly elevated the claim of bad memory to new extremes. This transparent verbal duck has become so blatant that it is a major factor in the Bush presidency's collapse of credibility.What the president and his minions say seldom seems relevant to what really is going on. It's the political equivalent of "Upstairs, Downstairs." Pleading memory loss, of course, avoids the alternate pitfalls of perjury under oath, which carries severe legal consequences, or telling embarrassing truths, which is not illegal but may be punishable by social ostracism and loss of employment.
One of the sharpest impressions from the Watergate crimes in the 1970s was President Nixon's private advice to key aides, preserved on tape, that "You can always say you can't recall." (He became an unindicted co-conspirator and they went to jail anyway.) Bush officials, unaccustomed to tough questions from lawmakers and the voters about shadowy dealings in the six years Republicans controlled Capitol Hill, have suddenly been exposed to the sunlight of public scrutiny. For three months, GOP biggies have hid behind astonishing gaps of memory to weasel out of accountability for their actions. This would be silly were it not so serious. Public policy is, after all, at stake. At its annual banquet the Gridiron Club -- that venerable, elite Washington journalist's organization -- ridiculed the whole fibbing culture with singers representing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and ex-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in a political version of "I Remember it Well."
Rumsfeld sings, "Was there a war? Do you recall?" Rice replies, "I'm pretty sure." Rumsfeld continues, "We planned it all." Rice: "Ah yes, I remember it well." Rumsfeld: "They welcomed us, with open arms." Rice: "They opened fire! They set off bombs!" Rumsfeld concedes, "Oh, right. I remember it well." The song brought down the house. Even Republican-inclined guests laughed heartily.
The White House is trying to protect its key advisers from the spectacle that sank Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby with a guilty verdict for perjury and obstruction of justice. The jury didn't believe his claim that he didn't remember anything well -- or much of anything at all.
That's why the president is demanding that key advisers will not testify before Congress under oath or provide recorded transcripts. It's virtually an admission that there is much to hide.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales apparently can barely remember what day it is and what room he's in. Asked to describe under oath his role in the arbitrary mid-term firings of eight U.S. attorneys, he testified that he was not in the loop on any discussions about what was going on. "I don't recall being involved."
Justice Department e-mails, however, contradict that innocent pose. Gonzales' former chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, recalled events differently, claiming that Gonzales had been clued in all along. Despite an effort to assume some blame, Sampson too had trouble with his memory. He used the phrase "I don't remember" 122 times, by media count. In particular, he claimed "I don't remember" when asked about the scope of White House aide Karl Rove's participation.
One way out of this witness pickle is to take the Fifth Amendment, exercising the constitutional right to remain silent under questioning. Everyone is free to do that, but it is not something that the innocent usually do. It's what Justice Department counsel Monica Goodling did -- and guess what? Surprise, surprise! She was not fired.
Then there is the case of General Services Administration chief Lurita Doan, called to Congress to explain a no-bid contract to a business associate, a dispute with a technology company -- and, most important, a videoconference with top GOP political appointees in which attendees said she urged them to find ways to target Democrats and help Republicans in 2008.
The chief presenter of a 28-page partisan pitch at this meeting was J. Scott Jennings, Rove's deputy. Yet Doan insisted, "I honestly don't have a recollection of the presentation at all." Nor did she remember "actually saying" that participants should help "our candidates." Doan may have developed her bad memory when exposed as facing a probable violation of the Hatch Act, which prohibits political activity by government employees and carries penalties.
Memory lapses are not confined to Republicans, of course. They just happen to be the ones who have the most mistakes to explain these days. Democrats have been denied power in Washington so long they haven't had time to get into big trouble yet. After 2008, perhaps their turn will come.
Marianne Means is a Washington, D.C., columnist with Hearst Newspapers. She can be reached at 202-263-6400 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2007 The Seattle Post-Intelligencer