Chris Lehmann on defining deviancy down

Chris Lehmann’s D.C. Observer column debuts this week with “The Pleasurers of the President,” a scathing attack on the “louche pundit hubris” of the D.C. press corps following the U.S. attorney firings.

While “dogged investigators at online journalism outlets such as Talking Points Memo’s TPMmuckraker.com have done great work documenting the D.O.J.’s thuggish management of its appointed corps of attorneys,” says Lehmann, the D.C. media have “spent the entire buildup to this confrontation echoing the very sort of gnat-straining legal justifications they derided throughout the Clinton years.” Other highlights:

  • President George W. Bush has derided the Congressional demand for subpoenas as a run up to “show trials” and a means of “scoring political points,” while White House spokesman Tony Snow christened it partisan “hot-dogging.” The D.C. pundits are swooning in chorus. Dr. Krauthammer, with much jowly regret, called for Mr. Gonzales to resign over his clumsy handling of the fallout from the controversy, but confidently dubbed the controversy proper a “pseudo scandal.” Time magazine columnist Michael Kinsley recited the standard media line, pronouncing in a sweeping but ignorant flourish of capital insiderism that “there is … nothing illegal about a president firing a U.S. attorney. There is nothing even … wrong with it.” (It’s precisely this sort of razor-sharp skepticism that has evidently earned Mr. Kinsley The Week magazine’s 2006 “Columnist of the Year” award.)
  • Without a clearly enumerated violation of a section of the U.S. Code, preferably photocopied and highlighted in yellow by a panel of judges, it has to be perverse partisan grandstanding — and quite probably conspiracy-mongering — to suggest an abuse of power has occurred.
  • [Legal historian Stanley I. Kutler] notes … that this sort of core tampering with the separation of powers isn’t exactly easy to reel back once it’s been unleashed…. ‘For 40 years, I taught legal and constitutional history. I’m glad I’m no longer teaching. If I had to give one of those lectures today, I’d have to tell my students, ‘This is all now bullshit.'” (Emphasis added.)
  • [U.S.C. Law School professor and former assistant U.S. attorney Jonathan Shapiro] suggests that capable prosecutors could indeed identify significant trespasses against the criminal code in the scandal. “There is a part of the mail-fraud statute that says it shall be mail fraud or wire fraud to deprive the people of honest goods and services. That has often been used to target corrupt government officials, or union officials who have figured out a way to deprive their memberships of fair elections. Now it seems to me there’s a strong prima facie case to be made that these narrow political firings are depriving citizens of these attorneys’ districts of the Justice Department’s honest services.
  • [T]he Bush administration reads as one long middle-class riot, from the Office of Special Plans’ fanciful intelligence work in the run-up to the Iraq War to the brutal federal non-response to Hurricane Katrina. And yet, by the curious alchemy of D.C. punditry, it is somehow critics of the Justice Department who are accused of politicizing the justice system.
  • [F]or Washington writers to notice such things, they need a frame of reference beyond the pretty podiums and fancy language of an indictment press conference. Mr. Kutler recounts a call he recently fielded from a wire-service reporter seeking a suitable quote on the U.S. attorneys scandal and executive privilege. “I told him to look at Haldeman and Ehrlichman — and not only Nixon guys who were facing indictment, but also figures like Pat Buchanan, who weren’t,” Mr. Kutler said. “They all testified under oath. And then he asks, ‘Yeah—remind me what that was all about?'”

Editorial cartoon — not published at the Observer — found here.


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