- The Washington Times - Friday, January 16, 2009


The loyal opposition is loyal enough, but it’s not much of an opposition. The Republicans in the Senate, with a dwindling number of honorable exceptions, are a soft and squishy lot.

Barack Obama’s Cabinet selections are sailing through the vetting committees at warp speed, getting not the tough questions all nominees deserve but big wet kisses.

Eric Holder, whose role in the Clinton pardons scandal is a dark mystery, was braced for tough questions Thursday and all he got were invitations to a honeymoon cottage. When he conceded what even a sleepy schoolboy knows, that the civilized nations are at war with Islamist barbarians, Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina was ready with a pucker: “I’m almost ready to vote for you right now.”

This followed by two days the Republican wolf whistles for Hillary Rodham Clinton, who might as well have been asked questions about her sign (Scorpio), her favorite color (blue, naturally), or what kind of tree would she like to be (hickory, hard enough to crack nuts) if she could come back as a tree. When the vote was taken, only David Vitter of Louisiana voted not to recommend her to the full Senate.

Barring extraordinary circumstances, every president is entitled to choose the men and women he wants around him as he tries to govern a contentious and often cranky nation, but principled (or at least partisan) opposition nearly always takes down a vulnerable nominee or two. Nobody should have expected this to include Mrs. Clinton; the Republican reward for giving her a pass this week will be watching her repay Mr. Obama with the distress and anguish that only Bubba could tell him to expect. With the Clintons, everything is about the Clintons.

When the Republicans vetting Mrs. Clinton hid under their desks everyone in Washington thought the GOP was holding its fire, waiting for the Holder hearings since he was regarded as the most vulnerable Obama nominee. But Senate Republicans have no fire, in the belly or elsewhere, and Republican backbone is cast mostly in jelly.

Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania bestirred himself briefly, asking Mr. Holder about presidential mercy for Marc Rich, the fleeing financial felon pardoned by Bill Clinton in the last hours of his presidency. Mr. Holder, who was then the No. 2 at the Justice Department, told the White House that he was “neutral,” when he was actually working for Mr. Rich, but “leaning” toward advising the president to grant the pardon. Bubba didn’t need much advice, since Marc Rich would be a generous contributor to his presidential library in Little Rock.

Mr. Holder repeated an earlier apology for misleading the White House (the lawyerly euphemism for “lying to the White House”) and said he should have “studied” the pardon more. Mr. Holder said he learned from his mistake and the experience would make him “a better attorney general.” If “the bigger the blunder the better the attorney general” is a reliable guide, this opens real possibilities for presidents in search of “better” attorneys general. But that was good enough for Mr. Specter. He sank back in his chair, exhausted by his exertions.

Mr. Holder established his credentials early in the hearings. He’s against torture (as who isn’t), and particularly against waterboarding, or simulated drowning. The sensation is unpleasant, as anyone who has inadvertently drawn a deep breath underwater at the country club pool could tell you. It isn’t lethal but it is effective. It’s also “legal, safe and rare,” as Democrats are fond of saying abortion should be.

There was even more good news for Islamic radicals who may be plotting more mayhem in America. Mr. Holder repeated the Obama promise to close the military prison at Guantanamo, but, like the president-elect, he isn’t sure when, or how, or what to do with the unrepentant terrorists imprisoned there.

“I think we want to leave our options open,” he told the senators. “The one thing I can assure you and the American people and, frankly, the world is that whatever system we use it will be consistent with our values. It will be a system that has due process guarantees.”

This evoked cheers from the gallery, but none of the senators thought to ask what assurances he could offer mere Americans - frankly, the world doesn’t worry about this all that much - that America would continue to be safe from the likes of the men who brought down the World Trade Center and inflicted pain and death at the Pentagon.

Mr. Holder clearly has a soft spot for pardons of all kinds. He told Jeff Sessions of Alabama that President Clinton’s pardon of 16 Puerto Rican separatists for the 1982 bombing of a federal office building in Manhattan was “reasonable” because they had served 19 years and besides, they didn’t actually carry out violent acts. The FBI said they did, but what could the investigators know? No more questions, please.

• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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