I used to have lunch occasionally with the late Archibald Cox, the first Watergate special prosecutor, who was fired by President Nixon in the infamous "Saturday Night Massacre" after Cox insisted Nixon was legally required to comply with a subpoena for tapes of conversations that had taken place inside the White House.
I never asked "Archie," as everyone around the law school called him, anything about Watergate, but I was always struck by how difficult it was to imagine Cox doing anything unethical. Appearances can be deceiving, of course, but Cox - a tall, courtly man, with steely blue eyes, and impeccable taste in clothes - always managed to convey the essence of classic WASP rectitude.
Cox, who was the great-grandson of a secretary of state, and a direct descendent of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was part of a ruling class that had run the country almost as a matter of birthright. Part of being a member of that class involved taking the idea of the rule of law very seriously.
Thus it came as no surprise to anyone that, when Nixon ordered another Boston Brahmin, Attorney General Elliot Richardson, to fire Cox, Richardson resigned in protest rather than comply with Nixon's order (as did Richardson's second in command, Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus).
All this came to my mind when I heard Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had decided to leave the office in order to spend more time with his family, as they say in Washington. The words "Alberto Gonzales resigned in protest after President Bush ordered him to do something Gonzales considered unethical" make up one of those sentences that could theoretically occur in the English language, but, like "Paris Hilton has been awarded the Nobel Prize in physics," there was never any real prospect that someone would have occasion to utter it.
Yale law professor Jack Balkin summarizes Gonzales' tenure as attorney general well: "As for Mr. Gonzales, he was a disgrace to the office. There are many roles he could have competently filled - and did fill - in his career. The nation's chief law enforcement officer was not one of them. He abused his office for political gain, repeatedly misled Congress under oath - and probably out and out lied on more than one occasion - and turned a once proud institution of government into an object of deep suspicion."
When legal historians look back on the Bush administration, they will note that, whether the issue was ignoring international treaties prohibiting torture, or spying on Americans in violation of federal law, or firing U.S. attorneys for the sleaziest of partisan political motives, Gonzales was at the center of it all.
Abject loyalty is a fine thing in a dog, but Gonzales' unlimited devotion to his master became, after a time, a rather stomach-churning sight. Thus I found it particularly offensive that, in announcing his resignation, Gonzales noted that he had "lived the American dream," because "even my worst days as attorney general have been better than my father's best days."
Pablo Gonzales, who died 25 years ago, was a construction worker with an elementary school education who, with his wife Maria, raised Alberto as one of their eight children.
I know nothing more about the man that that, but it seems he did an honest day's work for a day's pay, and that he found a way to put food on the table and clothes on the backs of eight children despite his elementary school education. And we know he never lied to Congress, or helped make it possible for his country's government to torture people, or made a mockery of the rule of law.
I imagine he had a lot of good days.
Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado. He can be reached at email@example.com.
© 2007 Rocky Mountain News