Mastering the intricate dance of congressional testimony.

Mastering the intricate dance of congressional testimony.

Mastering the intricate dance of congressional testimony.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
June 16 2007 7:11 AM

Testimonial Two-Step

Mastering the intricate dance of congressional testimony.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

When the long-awaited congressional subpoenas went out this week to former White House Counsel Harriet Miers and former Political Director Sara Taylor, it seemed safe to assume that weeks of legal wrangling would follow between the White House and Congress. That's OK. It will give Taylor and Miers a little time with their respective dance coaches. They'll need to bone up on the footwork required for government officials offering congressional testimony about awkward political scandals.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate and hosts the podcast Amicus.

Now Sara, Harriet—I know what you're thinking: "I sat out the lambada, screwed up the electric slide, and herniated a disc on the macarena. How am I going to master the testimonial two-step in just a few short weeks?" Take heart, ladies. Just by watching old tapes of Kyle Sampson, Alberto Gonzales, Lurita Alexis Doan, and all of their subpoenaed government friends, you too can be twisting and shouting in no time. The steps are really rather simple:

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Take a step to the left: The first move is to seize ground as a member of some protected constitutional class. Former White House liaison to the Justice Department Monica Goodling, who was a central player in the U.S. attorneys purge and a 33-year-old law-school graduate to boot, called herself a "girl" in her written testimony to the House judiciary committee. Hans von Spakovsky, facing a rocky confirmation hearing for a position at the Federal Election Commission this week, reminded the Senate that his parents had fled Nazi Germany and Russia.

You can follow with an optional second step to the left by implying (or having your supporters imply) that you are not only a member of a vulnerable minority group, but that this is why you're being persecuted by Democrats in the first place. Rep. John L. Mica, R-Fla., gallantly defended Lurita Alexis Doan, the chief of the General Services Administration who testified in the House this week about alleged Hatch Act violations, by claiming she was the target of a political witch hunt because: "You're a Republican, a minority, a woman, a GOP contributor!" Similarly, when Goodling was teased in her House testimony for attending a law school whose stated mission was to "bring to bear upon legal education and the legal profession the will of almighty God, our creator,'' Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, suggested that someone be charged with a hate crime.

Take a step to the right: This is when you reclaim the line that liberal causes are destroying America, even when there is no empirical evidence that this is the case. Attorney General Gonzales leapt to decry the evils of vote fraud, which is "vote stealing," he said, rather than a "dirty word" used against poor or minority voters. And Bradley Schlozman, the former U.S. attorney from Missouri who brought vote-fraud indictments only four days before last November's elections, had a slightly different twist on this move: He claimed in his Senate testimony last week to be so unfamiliar with the politics of vote fraud that he didn't even know his target, voter-registration group ACORN, was a liberal-leaning group.

Jump back: Here's the part where you claim that you did not, in fact, do the job you were ostensibly paid to do. Monica Goodling, for instance, testified that she was not one of the "final decision-makers" in the U.S. attorney purge, and instead spent her days planning "morale-boosting events" for her charges at the DoJ. Von Spakovsky, the aspiring FEC guy, testified that although six of his former colleagues opposed his nomination because he "played a major role" and was indeed the "point-person" for injecting partisan political factors into decision-making at the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, he was simply "not the decision-maker." And Gonzales, for his part, made clear that he leaves most of the big decisions about the running of the Justice Department to the "consensus judgment of the senior leadership."

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Point your finger: Point it anywhere. Up to the left, a la John Travolta. Or down to the right, a la dog trainer. In a pinch, you can always point it at Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty. But whatever you do, find some schmo on the dance floor and blame him, even if—as was the case when Brad Schlozman testified last week that he was "directed" to bring those vote-fraud indictments—you are eventually forced to write a letter to the Senate "clarifying" that the person who "directed" you to do something wrong was, er, yourself. 

Cover your mouth: Assert a privilege, any privilege. Goodling at first famously refused to testify on the grounds that she would incriminate herself in some crime-to-be-named-later. Gonzales likes to say that he can't testify about most of what he's done wrong because he doesn't want to imperil the investigation into what he's done wrong. And this week, von Spakovsky declined to explain his support of a controversial Georgia voter-ID law (later struck down by the courts) because the advice he gave his superiors at the Justice Department was somehow "privileged."

Shake your head: This move is to the testimonial two-step what a shake of your caboose is to the macarena. In other words, it's make or break. It requires staring like a doe into the middle distance, then shaking your head in an effort to dislodge a buried memory. Alberto Gonzales claimed to have "no recollection" or "no memory" 64 timesin one afternoon of Senate testimony this spring. Gonzales' former Chief of Staff Kyle Sampson doubled down on that, using the phrase "I don't remember" 122 times on his day at the Hill. Lurita Alexis Doan doesn't recall asking political appointees how they could "help our candidates" during a Jan. 26 briefing at the GSA. And von Spakovsky didn't recall seeing data from the state of Georgia suggesting that the voter-ID initiative he was pushing might suppress votes.

All right, now. Up off that couch and follow me: Step to the left, step to the right, jump back, point. Point at Paul McNulty. Then cover your mouth, shake your head, and do it all again. If it feels like the hokeypokey, you're doing it, you're really doing it! Now, when your day comes to face the music in Congress, you'll already know the dance.

A version of this piece appeared in Sunday's Washington Post Outlook section.