Opinion

We're all scandal-plagued attorneys general now

In an interview on Sunday's Meet the Press, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson was pummeled by host Tim Russert about everything from his inconsistencies on Iraq to his professions of loyalty to both the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. Perhaps the most embarrassing—yet also poignant—"Gotcha!" moment came when Russert pounced on Richardson's slowness to call for the resignation of Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales.

"You were reluctant to do so earlier because you said he was Hispanic," Russert said, adding: "Just because he's Hispanic and you're Hispanic, you gave him a little more license to do things that you didn't agree with?"

"Yeah, I did," the Democratic presidential hopeful said. "I'm not perfect."

Richardson's answer encapsulates both what is problematic with "diversity"-driven politics—it turns public officials into ethnic emblems, complicating efforts to judge their job performance—and what is natural about the phenomenon: the appeal of a government that, in Bill Clinton's words, "looks like America." (Well, at least in terms of ethnicity and gender; even Clinton never proposed to give Cabinet representation to children or the extremely elderly).

Aside from what it shows about him, Richardson's answer reflects what might be Al Gonzales' greatest sin: his bathetic attempt to seize on diversity as a life-preserver. At the infamous March 13 news conference at which he admitted "mistakes were made here" in the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, the attorney general self-pityingly played the diversity card.

"I've overcome a lot of obstacles in my life to become attorney general," he said. "I am here not because I give up." It doesn't take a lot of deconstruction to realize that the obstacles Gonzales was referring to were not his decisions as White House counsel but his humble—and, yes, Latino—origins.

To be fair, Gonzales was playing a card that others have dealt him. In introducing Gonzales at his confirmation hearing, Sen. Arlen Specter (who since has soured on the A.G.) itemized highlights of what he called the "Horatio Alger" saga of Gonzales, which began with his "Hispanic background."

I myself in covering Gonzales' confirmation for another newspaper filed a story that (whether through my doing or an editor's, I can't remember) began this way: "White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales was confirmed by the U.S. Senate yesterday as the nation's first Hispanic attorney general on a vote of 60-36, with dissenting senators saying he was unfit for the job because of his acquiescence in a Bush administration policy that they said led to the abuse of suspected terrorists."

Reading that lead, one might assume that Gonzales' presidential commission actually contained the title "Hispanic attorney general." It might as well have, given the political points Bush scored with Latinos, including, apparently, Bill Richardson, with the Gonzales choice. I didn't cover the Senate confirmation of Janet Reno as Bill Clinton's attorney general, but a Reuters reporter who did filed a story with this lead: "The U.S. Senate unanimously confirmed Janet Reno yesterday as the first woman attorney-general, completing President Clinton's Cabinet."

All of which shows that, as Harvard sociologist Nathan Glazer said, "we're all multiculturalists now." And maybe we always have been. Conservative critics of "diversity" deride it as a recent offshoot of liberal political correctness and/or a euphemism for affirmative action. But that's too simple.

Yes, many invocations of "diversity" reflect leftish notions of identity politics first inculcated in progressive schoolrooms where (to quote the anthropologist Peter Wood) "magical images of rainbows, crayon boxes and quilts are part of the emotional cathexis that warms us to the idea that we derive our basic identity from the groups into which we were born [and] that we should celebrate group differences."

But "diversity" shaped political arrangements in this country long before Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell consecrated the concept of a "diverse student body" in the 1978 Bakke affirmative action case. In the 1950s, politicians in ethnically and religiously diverse states knew it was smart to offer the voters a "balanced ticket" comprising Irish, Italian and Jewish candidates (and maybe the odd WASP). As late as 1970 Democrats in New York State were ridiculed by political savants when they fielded an ill-fated all-Jewish slate headed by gubernatorial candidate Arthur Goldberg.

So "diversity" in politics is, as H. Rap Brown might have said, is as American as cherry pie. Why, then, should Gonzales be criticized for flying the "diversity" flag in seeking to save his job? Because in doing so he gives the concept a bad name.

Michael McGough is The Times' senior editorial writer. Send us your thoughts at opinionla@latimes.com.

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