- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 18, 2007

Ho boy. Washington is all agog over the administration’s decision to replace a bunch of U.S. Attorneys — eight of them at last count. Therefore the rest of the country is supposed to be all agog over it, too.

Let’s hope the usual partisans about to beat this nonscandal into the ground, and the media that dutifully repeat and amplify their accusations, will excuse some of us for not joining the pile-on.

Because it’s not as if federal prosecutors held nonpolitical, Civil Service-protected positions. These are all political appointments, and any administration is entitled to unappoint them. That privilege goes with a political party’s winning a presidential election and, with it, getting to distribute the spoils of victory. Or in this case, redistribute them when it takes a mind to.

This has been going on since the political parties hurling accusations at each other were Federalists and Jeffersonians instead of Democrats and Republicans, but the game is the same. And it will remain much the same after this “scandal” is replaced by the next one, and the sound and fury begins anew.

Fair enough. The first duty of the opposition, after all, is to oppose. Partisan criticism is one more check-and-balance in a system just crammed to overflowing with them. And it can be a good thing, as any member of the press should know. Every administration ought to be subject to intense scrutiny, even heckling.

But that scarcely means the public needs to take every catcall seriously, or pretend every nonscandal is Teapot Dome, much as the party in opposition would like it to be.

If this administration’s Attorney General Alberto Gonzales made a mistake, and he did, it was in talking loosely about how he would never replace a U.S. Attorney “for political reasons.”

There may indeed have been good, credible nonpartisan reasons to dismiss any or all of these federal prosecutors. For what lawyer cannot find some reason to criticize another lawyer’s work? Still, the attorney general would have been better off to just stick with the president’s clear constitutional authority to appoint and dismiss federal prosecutors as he will, for they all serve at his pleasure. Instead, Mr. Gonzales talked about how above politics the process is. It isn’t, it wasn’t, and surely never will be.

For there would have been a down side to saying the obvious, which is that politics plays a role in political appointments. It’s not done for politicians to admit they play politics, and that includes handing out patronage.

As a rule, pols don’t like to be thought of as pols, especially if they are. So they avoid explicit references to their occupation, preferring euphemisms about being in public service, which of course they are. But like any servants, they have their own interests to look after, as they do assiduously. That doesn’t make them bad, just human.

By now former U.S. Attorneys even have their own association, sounding board and lobby, to wit, the National Association of Former U.S. Attorneys. Various of its members now have complained loudly about these eight U.S. Attorneys having been dismissed like the political appointees they were.

Can these distinguished formers believe they were appointed for life, or at least the life of an administration? Have they confused their posts with that of almost untouchable federal judges? Their sense of entitlement annoys as much as it entertains. Somebody should have told these folks, in the immortal words of Mister Dooley, Finley Peter Dunne’s sage Irish barkeep at the turn of another century, that politics ain’t bean bag.

This whole overblown fuss in a long succession is not without amusing aspects. These oh-so-indignant partisans are now shocked — shocked — to discover a handful of federal prosecutors are being let go for what seem to be political reasons. Can anyone recall their expressing the slightest outrage when a Democratic administration did much the same thing, only across the board, to make way for its own appointments?

In March 1993, Bill Clinton’s newly sworn-in attorney general — Janet Reno — fired every single U.S. Attorney in the country, all 93, in the opening salvo of the Clinton Years. That administration never hesitated to reward loyal FOBs — Friends of Bill — whether the jobs were in the justice system or the White House travel office.

The clean sweep of U.S. attorneys in ‘93 may have been the most comprehensive, unmistakable, unprecedented, and politically motivated dismissal of federal prosecutors in American history. Surely they couldn’t all have been incompetent.

At the time, Bill Clinton tried to make it seem unexceptional: “All those people are routinely replaced,” he claimed, “and I have not done anything differently.”

Really? But those other presidents were far more gradual about it. They did have some shame. Still, as president and chief executive, Mr. Clinton had every right to fire the federal prosecutors he had inherited, and appoint his own people.

Let this much be said of Bill Clinton’s blanket decision to get rid of every sitting U.S. Attorney in the country: It showed a firm grasp of the unitary theory of the executive. All those people he was firing ultimately worked for him and, if he wanted to appoint different ones, that was entirely his prerogative.

But here’s the punch line of the story: More than a decade later, another Clinton — Hillary, at present the junior senator from New York — now has complained about this current president’s “politicization of our prosecutorial system.” What a hoot. New Yorkers have a word for this kind of oh-so-outraged accusation: Chutzpah.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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