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Elizabeth de la Vega: Doin' the Karl Rove Dance

Doin' the Karl Rove Dance

By Elizabeth de la Vega &
Tuesday 03 April 2007

A chorus line of "loyal Bushies".

Last week, Americans with access to YouTube were subjected to a once-in-a-lifetime performance by President Bush's senior political adviser Karl Rove. At least, I fervently hope that this event will only happen once in our lifetimes. Watching Rove, at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, bobbing and weaving awkwardly in a pathetic parody of a rapper was painful. However, more excruciating than his routine - "MC Rove: Doin' the Dance, the Karl Rove Dance" to lyrics supplied by comedian Brad Sherwood - was the sight of the members of our so-called independent Washington press corps laughing amiably at the antics of a senior presidential aide whose conduct is so universally considered despicable that no one even flinches at ill-timed lines like: "Don't get the jitters/but MC Rove tears the head off of critters." That scene was the stuff of nightmares.

Rove's rap performance was disturbing, yes; but, in the end, it was also relatively brief and harmless. The same cannot be said of the danse macabre he has been directing since the Bush administration took over the White House. We know that Rove is a master of the quick-step and the hustle, but he almost never makes his moves in public. Instead, he has been directing the Bush production from the Office of Political Affairs whose purpose is, according to the White House website, to ensure "that the executive branch and the President are aware of the concerns of the American citizen."

Karl Rove has, for years, been choreographing an elaborate dance of death for the federal government designed to give life to the Republican Party, and yet the public remains largely ignorant of his activities because he so rarely takes the stage. That honor is reserved for an apparently infinite supply of young Republicans eager to dance their little hearts out for a chance to get plum appointments. In other words, the prerequisite for the success of the Bush administration's extravaganza - whether in Washington, Iraq, or elsewhere - has been a chorus line of "loyal Bushies."

Of course, the term "loyal Bushie" requires no definition, but one has recently been supplied by Kyle Sampson, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's former deputy chief of staff. Undoubtedly to his everlasting regret, Sampson, who resigned just prior to his testimony last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee, used this term to describe those United States Attorneys who should be retained by the White House because they had "managed well and exhibited loyalty to the president and attorney general." Those who "chafed against administration initiatives" were recommended for removal, according to Sampson; while the rest of the lot, including U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois and Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, were unranked.

I spent last Thursday watching Sampson testify about the White House choreographed firings of seven U.S. Attorneys who were chafers. I was compelled to watch, even though, having worked for more than 21 years as an Assistant United States Attorney myself, I considered the revelation of this latest outrage to be the least horrific of a long string of horrors carried out by the Bush administration in the name of the Department of Justice for the advancement of the Republican Party.

To satisfy the tobacco lobby, for instance, President Bush's Department of Justice (DOJ) appointees gutted the most significant case ever brought against the giant tobacco companies. To assuage the Republican base, Bush's DOJ brought an unprecedented number of civil rights cases on behalf of non-minorities, while drastically limiting its traditional affirmative-action lawsuits. In order to portray themselves as representatives of the party most likely to make the American people feel safe - a cherished nugget of political wisdom from Karl Rove's constant polling activities - Bush's Attorneys General have sanctioned, caused to be carried out, and/or turned a blind eye to the use of illegal spying on citizens, illegal detentions at Guantanamo and elsewhere, kidnappings and "extraordinary renditions" to countries which the State Department has classified as the most egregious of human rights violators and, worst of all, administration-sanctioned acts of torture.

It is these activities that, to adopt the words of a fellow former Assistant United States Attorney and lifelong Republican, "turn my stomach." Given that, under the stewardship of John Ashcroft and then Alberto Gonzales, the Department of Justice has consistently engaged in heinous criminal activity and blatant civil-rights violations around the world, I was finding it difficult to be as exercised as some about the firing of the U.S. Attorneys. Certainly, there is abundant evidence that as many as seven U.S. Attorneys were removed for no other reason than to enable the administration to fill their positions with up-and-coming Republicans or, worse, to interfere with or influence the investigation of one or more cases for partisan political reasons - a purpose that even Sampson acknowledged would be improper. But that didn't get to me. Nor was I particularly incensed by the fact that, as former U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins of Little Rock, Arkansas commented on CBS's Face the Nation, the authority to make presidential appointments may possibly have been "delegated down through Harriet Miers, Karl Rove, Judge Gonzales and all the way down to a bunch of 35-year-old-kids who - who got in a room together and tried to decide who was the most loyal to the president." That story seemed to me to be less an accurate description of what happened than a blame-it-on-the-kids alibi offered on behalf of Bush, Rove, Miers, and Gonzales.

Listening to Sampson, however, and reading the careless, often juvenile emails he exchanged with fellow loyal Bushies, 33-year-old Monica Goodling (Gonzales' top aide, now on administrative leave because she pleaded the Fifth Amendment to avoid testifying before Congress) and Scott Jennings (another thirty-something aide to Karl Rove in the Office of Political Affairs), I felt my stomach beginning to roil again. In the end, what really got me was the realization that none of these Republican-politicians-in-training had any concept of public service. Worse, they were entirely contemptuous of the very government they had been entrusted to run.

I spent my entire career in federal service, starting with a stint as a clerk for a federal judge. Modest and self-effacing as he was, just like every other judge I've ever known, he had a fondness for dispensing homely wisdom to his clerks. One of his favorites - "When in doubt, do right" - always made me laugh. It was, for starters, ridiculously corny. I thought, what a no-brainer - except in those agonizing situations where competing moral or ethical concerns caused uncertainty about what course of action to follow. If you knew what was right, of course you would do it.

It never occurred to me that anyone would behave otherwise, but then again, I was young - and I hadn't been around Karl Rove. On the other hand, the judge, a Republican, had been around his share of rogues. Indeed, he had survived an administration that was remarkably similar to the one we have today. Years before I clerked for him, he had been appointed United States Attorney by President Richard Nixon. As his first official act, the judge had selected a trusted colleague to be his First Assistant and they both went about their business.

One day not long afterwards, however, the judge returned from lunch to find a member of Nixon's legal staff waiting for him: The man had traveled from Washington, D.C to tell him that he had to fire his First Assistant because he was a Democrat. What did the judge do? He told the lawyer to get out of his office - politely, I would imagine - and not come back. That was the end of the matter.

As it happens, the judge's homely advice to his clerks is almost exactly the title of the Department of Justice Ethics Rules provided to every new employee. They inform the ethics training that DOJ employees around the country receive once a year. The standards of conduct issued by Alberto Gonzales' own shop are called "Do it Right" and here is the introductory paragraph:

"You may have heard it said that 'public service is a public trust.' This means that each Federal employee has a responsibility to the United States Government and its citizens to place loyalty to the Constitution, laws and ethical principles above private gain. The public deserves and should expect no less."

Tragically, the public has been receiving so much less from the entire Bush administration. What would have happened to a Bush-appointed U.S. Attorney who engaged in the sort of brazen display of integrity I just described? We now know exactly what. Main Justice, as the DOJ's Washington, D. C. office is called, is well-staffed with "loyal Bushies" who will apparently carry out any tasks assigned, regardless of how unethical, illegal, or immoral they may be. The President is now trying to staff the U.S. Attorney's Offices throughout the country with the same feckless loyalists. If he is allowed to proceed unimpeded, those offices too will be run by United States Attorneys "Doin' the Karl Rove Dance."


Elizabeth de la Vega is a former federal prosecutor with more than 20 years of experience. During her tenure, she was a member of the Organized Crime Strike Force and Chief of the San Jose Branch of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of California. Her pieces have appeared in the Nation Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and Salon. She writes regularly for She is the author of United States v. George W. Bush et al., which has been optioned for a movie scheduled to begin production in the summer of 2007. She may be contacted at

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