Somebody owes me a Diet Coke.
That's what was at stake in a wager a gentleman and I made over dinner at a restaurant in Baton Rouge. He had asked if I didn't agree that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, then, as now, under fire in the scandal over the alleged politically motivated firing of nine U.S. attorneys, would soon be forced to step down. I said no. He said Gonzales would not last six weeks. We made a bet on it.
This was 11 weeks ago. Gonzales, of course, is still in office. In fact, President Bush last month reiterated his support for his embattled friend, who faces a possible Senate no-confidence vote later this month.
I wish I could say that in wagering on Gonzales' political survival, I relied upon some insider knowledge, some astute reading of the tea leaves based on long years of watching the political scene. Truth is, what I relied on is a belief in the utter shamelessness of George W. Bush's administration.
No, Team Bush does not own the patent on shamelessness. Some of us thought it bespoke an alarming imperviousness to embarrassment when Bill Clinton, caught lying about being serviced by a young intern in the Oval Office, chose to brazen his way through the resulting furor rather than resign.
But if the Bush people did not invent shamelessness, they have refined it to a level that once seemed impossible. So much so that this shamelessness, this indifference to perception, this abysmal lack of what Thomas Jefferson called "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind" may prove to be the administration's defining characteristic, its calling card in matters both grand and small. Granted, shamelessness will have to battle hubris and incompetence to earn that distinction, but still ...
No administration in living memory has shown Team Bush's ability to reverse itself so blithely, to deny the obvious so serenely, to ignore precedent, propriety and responsibility with such placid unconcern for consequences or public perception.
Weapons of mass destruction not found where you once guaranteed they would be? Pretend you invaded Iraq for other reasons.
"Stay the course" proving an ever more threadbare strategy? Deny it was ever your strategy at all.
FEMA director presides over a botched disaster relief effort that costs hundreds of American lives? Praise him for doing "a heckuva job."
CIA director presides over intelligence gathering failures that cost thousands of American lives? Give him a Medal of Freedom.
And so on.
If you're looking for accountability, you're looking in the wrong White House. Or as Bush once put it, "We had an accountability moment, and that's called the 2004 elections." In other words, if you win the election you can do whatever you want and it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks.
So I am not surprised that, despite growing evidence he allowed the Justice Department to become a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party, Alberto Gonzales still has a job with the federal government. To be honest, I am more surprised that Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and former FEMA chief Michael Brown do not.
And ain't that a kick in the head? We have reached a pass where one is almost shocked to see people held to answer for scandal and ineptitude. Where one is taken aback at the notion that failure carries a price. And where tough talk and a "What, me worry?" smugness now routinely pass for iron resolve and moral clarity.
If you had told me in 2001 that this would be the state of things six years later, I'd have laughed in your face.
I'd have lost a lot of Diet Cokes on that.