Back when George Bush, in the picture presented by the US media, was a visionary leader who was protecting us from evil, and a swell guy you'd like to have a beer with to boot, the press corps in Washington used to devote far too much attention to the president's penchant for bestowing on those around him little nicknames.
In its flattering way, the press tried to invest this habit of Bush's with the sense that it was indicative of a particularly sharp wit. This didn't always work on the printed page for the simple reason that most of these names were so banal and unimaginative that any reasonably intelligent drinker could have invented them on the spot at his or her barstool: "Barney" for conservative journalist Fred Barnes, "Corndog" for senator John Cornyn and so on.
One nickname, though, always stood out as freighted with a great deal of meaning, though not the sort a fawning press corps of the sort Bush enjoyed in the early years of his presidency would discuss. Alberto Gonzales, the long-time Bush associate who just announced his resignation as attorney general, was dubbed "Fredo."
Fredo, of course, was the hapless Corleone brother of Mario Puzo's Mafia novel. Forever getting in trouble and, more importantly, getting Michael in trouble. Screwing things up. Trying too hard, like lining up hookers for a strictly-business trip Michael made to Vegas. In the end, betraying his family to Hyman Roth, and finally getting iced by his own brother, the Godfather.
We don't yet know whether Bush iced Gonzales, politically, or whether the disgraced attorney general realized on his own what the rest of Washington has known for months - that his credibility was completely shot and he couldn't continue in his job.
Indeed Gonzales' legacy is so resoundingly awful that one can't imagine which of his failures and transgressions his eventual obituary writers and future historians will highlight. Lying to Congress, which is the clear implication made in testimony by his former aide Monica Goodling? Potential witness tampering, another charge Goodling made implicitly under oath? Helping Bush cover up his old drunk driving conviction?
Wait, there's more! Helping Bush, then governor of Texas, set a modern record for one governor in ordering 150 executions, reviewing in his capacity as Bush's counsel more than fifty clemency applications and never recommending clemency once? Later, declaring the Geneva Conventions "quaint"?
And of course, there's overseeing the firings of nine US attorneys because they would not participate in overtly political prosecutions.
The thread that runs through all these actions is perfectly amplified, I think, by the one nickname to which the president evidently gave a great deal of thought. Throughout his career, Gonzales has, like Fredo, sought to please his superior by anticipating his wishes at every turn.
Aware that the path to the White House was more likely to be cleared with the carcasses of death-row inmates than with their clemency certificates, Fredo acted accordingly. Alert to his bosses' desire for untrammelled executive power, he freed them from September 10-era international conventions and approved the use of torture.
And, awake to Karl Rove's aspiration that the GOP consolidate its hold on certain states that would be crucial to a Republican majority in the electoral college in 2008, he allowed his department to try to install political-hack prosecutors to help clear Democrats out of the way.
There is, however, one thing Fredo did that Gonzales has not done - turned on his boss. It is known that Gonzales once pined for a seat on the Supreme Court. Bush did not advance Gonzales' name either time he had the opportunity to do so, and now of course, if Bush were to get another shot at nominating a Supreme Court justice, he couldn't possibly put Gonzales forward.
Is Gonzales bitter about this? He said in his farewell press conference that he'd lived the American dream and was grateful to Bush. But does he privately feel that for years, he's done nothing but Bush's - and Rove's, and with regard to torture, Dick Cheney's - dirty work, and now this is the thanks he gets?
If he really decides to live up to his nickname, we'll see the evidence at some point in the form of certain leaks emanating from mysterious sources about Rove's role in the US attorneys scandal.
But whatever the case on that front, Gonzales' sorry legacy is already written in stone, a tenure of service that was a tragedy for America that, however amusing his nickname, is not a laughing matter.
Michael Tomasky is editor of Guardian America.
© 2007 The Guardian