History lesson, kids.
Okay, can you name a single United States attorney general that has not broken some kind of major law in the past, I don’t know, let’s say half century?
Well, there are a few, William B. Saxbe, Griffin Bell, and maybe two other guys. There’s also the technicality of what a certain attorney general did before taking the office, like Nicholas Katzenbach, who as deputy attorney general drafted the infamous memo to the dubious Warren Commission that cast light on a government cover-up of the JFK assassination: “The public must be satisfied that Oswald was the assassin; that he had no confederates who are still at large; and that evidence was such that he would have been convicted at trial…Speculation about Oswald’s motivation ought to be cut off…Unfortunately the facts on Oswald seem about too pat—too obvious (Marxist, Cuba, Russian wife, etc.)…We need something to head off public speculation or Congressional hearings of the wrong sort.”
Be that as it may, the list of attorneys general, the chief law officer in the nation, having made mincemeat of some portion of the U.S. constitution is long. Very long.
For the purposes of current events, let’s first discuss the sitting attorney general, Eric Holder, who has been in the news for the Fast & Furious mess that has sullied his status, career and reputation. Without delving too deeply into Holder’s shenanigans here, there is absolutely nothing, not some, nothing that is legal about what Fast & Furious was supposed to achieve. Handing over a spectacular cache of weaponry to Mexican drug lords to track their use that ends up in the murder of an American border patrol agent is hardly murky. It’s indefensible. He simply belongs in prison for this. Not sure what has kept him working all this time. Election year? The possession of nude pictures of the first lady?
Holder’s screw up in all its drug running gun toting glory is a doozy, no question, but what I’m after is bigger; an explanation on why these top-level law officers, specifically during my lifetime, have shown a complete disregard for the law. It’s as if by merely representing a concept, it is an invitation to flout it.
Power grab? Circumstance? Bad luck?
It is not coincidental that there has been a spate of attorneys general that for one excuse after another ignored their station—national security being the niftiest excuse—to better treat the law of the land as toilet paper.
Most recently was George W. Bush’s Alberto Gonzales, who was for all intents and purposes using the Department Of Justice as a political tool to launch trumped-up investigations of Democratic congressmen.
Before Gonzales, John Ashcroft’s Patriot Act was so blatantly unconstitutional it was almost surreal, the only thing that topped it was the complete capitulation of the electorate, including yours truly, figuring that it was so off the charts loony that there was no way to actually enforce half of it. This, of course, turned out to be true, as the hundreds of lawsuits brought against the government have been successful. It became so messy for Ashcroft, he had to bail after memos circulated amongst his staff that the Justice Department handed iron-fisted powers of surveillance and torture to the executive branch, which included ignoring of the Third Geneva Convention, the ABM Treaty and the convenient sidestep of the First and Fourth Amendments under the auspices of “national security.”
Janet Reno, serving as Bill Clinton’s attorney general, acted on flimsy intelligence about “militia groups” and presided over the massacre of 76 Americans in a compound outside Waco, Texas. For reasons only know to her, a lunatic preacher and his wisecracking and heavily armed Branch Davidians (many of them women and children) deserved to be eradicated with full military force. Later, Reno was held, as is Holder, in contempt of congress for withholding documents implicating the Justice Department for failing to pursue investigations of known Democratic donors.
That brings us to my favorite, Edwin Meese, as terrible a human being, assuming he was one, as has ever held high office in this land, and that, my friends, is saying something. Funny thing is he isn’t close to the worst attorney general. Meese was charged but not convicted (a technicality at best) and later resigned in disgrace over the Wedtech scandal, wherein a company he was culling a paycheck from was given easy access to Department Of Defense contracts that cost taxpayers millions. But that pales in comparison to the unmitigated contempt Meese held for the First Amendment, which he attacked ceaselessly by harassing every avenue of free expression above and beyond any sane description of his job. And should I bother going into his shameless manipulation behind the scenes to successfully, for a time, keep the dirt off his boss, Ronald Reagan, for the outlandishly illegal Iran/Contra affair?
Reagan’s previous attorney general, William French Smith was another in a long line to be held in contempt of congress. This time it was Smith’s turn to withhold documents during an investigation of General Dynamics Corp., a weapons company in the pocket of the federal government for decades.
But Reagan’s clan was not nearly as roguish as Dick Nixon’s.
First, there’s John Mitchell, who paid money to everyone under the sun to commit a series of covert spying crimes against American citizens and sitting government officials, amongst other “national security” concerns surrounding students, protestors and private churches. Mitchell was clinically insane and was sacked by Nixon to parade in a cabal of attorneys general to keep the president from going to jail, including Richard Kleindienst, whose silence in the face of several pay-offs for a phalanx of criminals launched from inside the White House during the Watergate crisis lead eventually to Robert Bork, who carried out Nixon’s manic “Saturday Night Massacre.” This included, among a host of many others, the firing of his predecessor, Elliot Richardson, who had the job for five months.
This was what they call in the law business, the golden age of mayhem.
Then there is the curious case of Robert Kennedy, who had never tried a single case in any court in any land. In a case of nepotism run amok, Kennedy was given the post by his brother as payback for his father’s fixing the 1960 general election in at least five states. And although never outwardly breaking the law, RFK used his position and unusual access to the highest office in the land to heights never intended for attorney general. These include the covert negotiations with Soviet diplomats over the deployment of U.S. missiles in Turkey during the Cuban Missile Crisis and ushering prostitutes and starlets for JFK’s favor to and from the secret White House pool.
Not sure any of the above has to do with interpreting the law unless it is to interpret it through the prism of, at best, questionable behavior, which is what Eric Holder is now doing in the great tradition of the office.