AUSTIN, Texas -- Once upon a time, in the middle of a nasty constitutional crisis in Washington, a most unlikely hero emerged -- a Texas lawyer from one of our state's notoriously discriminated-against racial minorities. Think how lucky we were.

It is one of the most famous sentences in all of American rhetoric: "My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total." But what catches the eye today is the sentence that followed that famous declaration, the sentence that makes one so ashamed for Al Gonzales. Barbara Jordan's great, deep voice brought the impeachment hearings against Richard Nixon to an awed silence when she vowed, "And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution."

Thirty years ago, this state could produce Barbara Jordan -- and now we send that pathetic pipsqueak Al Gonzales. Enough to provoke a wailing cry of "O tempera, O mores!" even from the depths of Lubbock.

As a New York Times editorial succinctly put it, Attorney General Gonzales' Judiciary Committee appearance was a "daylong display of cynical hair-splitting, obfuscation, disinformation and stonewalling."

How fortunate that Republicans running the committee did not insist the chief law enforcement officer of the United States take an oath before testifying. God forbid that he should actually be held to the truth.

I realize it's a cliche for those of us who remember the Beach Boys to mourn the days when giants roamed the Earth and all was on a grander and finer scale. But I knew Barbara Jordan, and I know Al Gonzales, and it is damned depressing -- he's too lightweight to even be a mediocrity.

It seems to me the trumpery excuse for a hearing raised graver issues than those of 30 years ago. Gonzales kept trying to frame the issue as a question of whether or not a domestic spying program without warrants is illegal -- in fact, it is against the law.

Gonzales maintained the law is superseded by some unwritten constitutional power due the president during time of war and further that Congress had authorized warrantless spying when giving the president the authority to invade Afghanistan. Strange, so few who voted for invading Afghanistan recall having warrantless spying in mind.

One problem of legal logic is to "define war." We have not been attacked by another nation -- in fact, we were clearly the aggressors against Iraq. We were attacked by a private group of ideological zealots led by a Saudi millionaire. This war -- against no nation, flag or territory -- can presumably last indefinitely, like our wars against drugs and crime.

Barbara Jordan observed: "(Impeachment) is designed to 'bridle' the executive if he engages in excesses. ... The Framers confined in the Congress the power, if need be, to remove the president in order to strike a delicate balance between a president swollen with power and grown tyrannical, and preservation of the independence of the executive. ... 'A president is impeachable if he attempts to subvert the Constitution.'"

Nixon was accused, among other things, of misuse of the CIA. I highly recommend James Risen's new book, "State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration." Risen is the New York Times reporter who broke the story of the National Security Agency spying scandal.

Thomas Powers, an authority on American intelligence, reviewed the Risen book for The New York Review of Books and notes: "If the Constitution forbids a president anything, it forbids war on his say-so, and if it insists on anything, it insists that presidents are not above the law. In plain terms, this means that presidents cannot enact laws on their own, or ignore laws that have been enacted by Congress. ...

"In public life, as in kindergarten, the all-important word is no. We are living with the consequences of the inability to say no to the president's war of choice with Iraq, and we shall soon see how Congress and the courts will respond to the latest challenge from the White House -- the claim by President Bush that he has the right to ignore FISA's prohibition of government intrusion on the private communications of Americans without a court order and his repeated statements that he intends to go right on doing it."

The time is coming when someone will have to say no. Sadly, I have a vision of the impeachment panel, and I see Tom DeLay in the seat once occupied by the great Barbara Jordan.

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