Talk about a letdown. For weeks now, we’ve been hearing about Monica Goodling, the former top Justice Department official who took the Fifth Amendment rather than testify before Congress about the U.S. attorneys mess. Even though it seemed clear why Goodling took the Fifth — she feared she was walking into a trap in which her testimony would be compared to that of a former boss, the recently-resigned Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, and she might be accused of perjury — Goodling’s refusal to talk made her all the more desirable to congressional Democrats determined to get to the bottom of the U.S. attorneys matter. Surely her testimony would be explosive. She’s just got to testify.
So with high hopes the House Judiciary Committee took a vote and decided to grant immunity. And on Wednesday, Goodling showed up in Room 2141 of the Rayburn House Office Building, ready to tell what she knew.
The only problem was, what she knew, or at least what she testified, didn’t significantly advance our understanding of why the U.S attorneys were fired. By the end of the day, Democrats, led by the unfailingly polite but somewhat frustrated chairman Rep. John Conyers, were no closer to a Grand Unified Theory of the U.S. attorneys matter than they were before.
OVER THE LINE
There were three headlines from Goodling’s appearance. The first was that she admitted that she “stepped over the line” by considering partisan affiliation when hiring some career Justice Department employees. “I believe I crossed the lines,” Goodling testified. “But I didn’t mean to.”
The second headline was Goodling’s description of a meeting with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, shortly before she left the Justice Department in March, in which Gonzales seemed to suggest they get their stories straight before they were questioned further about the U.S. attorneys matter.
“He laid out a little bit of it, and then he asked me if he thought — if I had any reaction to his iteration,” Goodling testified. “And I remember thinking at that point that this was something that we were all going to have to talk about, and I didn’t know that it was — I just — I didn’t know that it was maybe appropriate for us to talk about that at that point, and so I just didn’t. As far as I can remember, I just didn’t respond.”
“Do you think, Ms. Goodling, the attorney general was trying to shape your recollection?” asked Alabama Democratic Rep. Artur Davis.
“No,” said Goodling. “I think he was just asking if I had any different — “
“But it made you uncomfortable,” interrupted Davis.
“I just did not know if it was a conversation that we should be having…”
It was damaging testimony, and it will surely be the source of questions for Gonzales in his future appearances before Congress. (On the other hand, it was no more damaging than presidential secretary Betty Currie’s 1998 account of Bill Clinton practicing his story with her in the Lewinsky affair, and many of these same Democrats on this same committee weren’t terribly upset about that.)
The third headline was that Goodling made clear that McNulty had offered “incomplete or inaccurate” testimony to Congress on the U.S. attorneys matter. Goodling offered her version of events with one point in mind: Don’t blame me. She told the committee that she had fully briefed McNulty, and any problems with his testimony were his alone.
MY OLD SCHOOL
Those were significant issues. But they weren’t enough to capture the attention of some committee Democrats, for whom there were more important questions to consider. Questions like: Where did Monica go to law school?
The short answer is Regent University Law School in Virginia Beach, Virginia, founded by televangelist Pat Robertson. The longer answer was provided by newly-elected Tennessee Democratic Rep. Stephen Cohen. Cohen had apparently read Wednesday morning’s edition of the Los Angeles Times, which described Regent this way:
Regent University claims 150 past and present members of the Bush administration among its alumni. Accredited by the American Bar Assn., the law school boasts of a “distinctive” Christian-based mission “to bring to bear the will of our Creator, Almighty God, upon legal education and the legal profession,” according to its website.
A quick student of the Times, Cohen asked Goodling, “The mission of the law school you attended, Regent, is to bring to bear upon legal education and the legal profession the will of almighty God, our creator. What is the will of almighty God, our creator, on the legal profession?”
Goodling seemed perplexed. “I’m not sure that I could define that question for you,” she said.
“Did you ask people who applied for jobs as [assistant U.S. attorneys] anything about their religion?”
“No, I certainly did not.”
“Ever had religion discussions come up?”
“Not to the best of my recollection.”
Cohen pressed. Hasn’t the Justice Department hired an unusually large number of graduates of Regent?
“I think we have a lot more people from Harvard and Yale,” said Goodling.
“That’s refreshing,” said Cohen, a graduate of the University of Memphis School of Law. “Is it a fact — are you aware of the fact that in your graduating class 50 to 60 percent of the students failed the bar the first time?”
At that point, hisses and hoots began to be rise from the Republican side of the dais, and, for just a moment at least, 2141 Rayburn sounded a bit like the House of Commons. Goodling assured Cohen that she had passed the bar the first time around.
What was particularly odd about the moment, at least for a hearing not devoted to the state of U.S schools, was that it was the second time the subject of higher education had come up in the space of just a few minutes. Earlier, Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee was very concerned that Goodling had asked about the political leanings of a job seeker named Seth Adam Meinero, “a graduate of Howard University, one of the top, outstanding law schools in the nation.” (Rep. Cohen did not protest, even though Howard’s bar-passing statistics don’t measure up to Regent’s.) Goodling said she regretted making a “snap judgment” about Meinero’s supposed political leanings, although she stressed that Meinero ultimately got the job he was seeking.
Rep. Jackson Lee also caused a few observers to scratch their heads when she opened her questioning of Goodling this way: “Allow me just to simply begin a series of questions, Ms. Goodling, and I would ask that they — your answers — be as cryptic and as brief as possible, however truthful, because we do have a shortened period of time.”
“Cryptic?” whispered one reporter. “Did she say cryptic? I think she did.”
Indeed she did. But Goodling did not follow Rep. Jackson Lee’s directions. In fact, her answers were quite clear and direct.
That is, when she got the opportunity to answer the questions put to her. Later in the hearing, Jackson Lee, by then taking a temporary turn in the chairman’s seat, had to restrain fellow Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison, who was so anxious to question Goodling that he seemed uninterested in her answers.
“So you all bypassed a chief of [the Civil Division] and went to somebody who had no experience in management simply because they were a liberal?” Ellison asked Goodling.
“No, not at all,” she answered. “There were other reasons involved in the decision.”
“Now — “
“To clarify, we — “
“No, I don’t need a clarification,” Ellison said. “Thank you, ma’am.”
“Well, I would like to complete my answer.”
“Well, I don’t need an answer.”
THE ROVIAN PLOT
Through it all, Goodling remained remarkably poised, perhaps surprisingly so in light of press reports that had her bursting into tears with some frequency during her Justice Department days. For hours Wednesday, she sat erect on the edge of her chair, her hands, occasionally trembling, clasped just out of sight below the witness table.
But just because Goodling handled herself well did not mean the U.S. attorneys mess became any easier to understand as a result of her testimony. Throughout the day, Goodling maintained that she was a small-time player in the firings; she didn’t know why, exactly, the U.S. attorneys were canned. In that respect, her answers resembled those of her old boss, Attorney General Gonzales, who has also testified that he didn’t know why, exactly, the U.S. attorneys were canned.
The dismaying possibility in all this is that both are telling the truth. Democrats, intent on finding an all-encompassing Rovian plot behind the firings, will never accept that possibility that the U.S. attorney firings were done in a manner that was so slipshod, so halting, and so pointless that nobody quite knew what was going on. But that may be just what happened. Whatever their partisan motivation, Democrats are trying to impose a logical template on events. In the end, they may be doomed to fail.