The Conservative Legal Establishment’s Strange Youth Culture

The New Republic, May 28, 2007

When I knew Monica Goodling, a few years ago, she was the Department of Justice public affairs staffer with whom I preferred to deal. In her late twenties, she had come over to the department from the Republican National Committee; she was smart, capable, and conversant enough in the war on terrorism issues about which I was writing Washington Post editorials to be helpful. She always got back to me promptly. And, while she parroted party line attitudes, I thought nothing of it. She was a flack, after all; that was her job. She never betrayed any sign of being some kind of Christian Right warrior. Had I been asked at the time to pick the department staffer likely to become the political enforcer for Alberto Gonzales, I never would have picked her. She was just one of the army of young, eager, ambitious lawyers who make up the conservative side of Washington’s legal world. Emphasis on “young.”

Yet there she was on Wednesday, confessing under oath before the House Judiciary Committee to the unpardonable behavior of applying political criteria to potential career hires. She conceded that she “crossed the line.” One committee member asked her specifically: “With regard to the hiring of the career assistant U.S. attorneys … did you ever act as a screener for Republican candidates for those positions?” Goodling, now 33, responded, “I think that I probably did.”

Liberals keen to pull intellectual rank on conservatives have made a big deal of the fact that Goodling went to Regent University law school—a right-wing outfit that is, well, not an elite institution. But nobody watching Goodling’s testimony could think her stupid. The better explanation, I think, is what Timothy Flanigan—Gonzales’s former deputy in the White House Counsel’s office—called at a recent Brookings Institution panel discussion “the problem of youth” in the Justice Department. “It is when someone takes an idea and just decides to run with it without maturity…the shoot, ready, aim approach to issues of policy or issues of execution of policy.”

Goodling is an example of the dark side of a strange youth culture in the conservative legal establishment, one that offers extraordinary opportunities to people at bizarrely young ages. At least at the elite levels of that culture, it is not a bunch of Regent grads but a group of people with impeccable academic backgrounds. This culture is by no means new to the Bush administration, and it has had some serious triumphs. It has also produced Monica Goodling, who surely would have done better for both the country and herself had she not gone so far so fast.

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