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Attorney General Mukasey on his sudden fame

Mukasey is a native New Yorker
April 5, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
Attorney General Michael Mukasey says he never has sought the spotlight, instead living by his parents' axiom of achieving success by keeping his head down and working hard. Look where that landed him: at the helm of the Justice Department, defending unpopular Bush administration policies and picking the best among bad options for fighting terrorists and crime.

The irony is not lost on Mukasey, who has begun to settle into the job that he undertook five months ago - one he says he never asked or competed for.

But, as he puts it with a slight grimace of embarrassed impatience, "And so what?"

"Look, the fact is, sometimes interesting things happen to boring people," Mukasey said last week during an in-flight interview above California with The Associated Press.

He added: "Anybody in a position like this has a series of accidents that happen. ... Many people do a very good job and that's the job they do. And there are some people who get a more visible one and I'm one of them."

At times, the job is more visible than Mukasey might care for.

During a Los Angeles news conference, he shut down a reporter who suggested gang members should be considered domestic terrorists and subjected to waterboarding, an interrogation tactic that simulates drowning and is called torture by critics. "I'm not going to talk about interrogation techniques," Mukasey snapped.

In San Francisco the next day, he choked up mentioning the Sept. 11 attacks to illustrate what might happen if the government cannot eavesdrop on the phone calls of suspected terrorists. "You've got 3,000 people who went to work that day and didn't come home to show for that," he said, pausing first to compose himself. The federal courthouse where he served as chief judge at the time of the attacks is just blocks from ground zero in lower Manhattan.

Mukasey, 66, came to the Justice Department after 18 years on the bench and a lucrative 21 months as a partner at New York law firm Patterson, Belknap Webb & Tyler, during which he netted almost $2 million. He is a native New Yorker who grew up in a lower-middle-class Bronx family as the son of a Belarus immigrant.

Along the way, he worked in his father's laundromat, as a messenger boy, as a law firm gofer and at a summer job at a Utah lumber mill. He was fired from that stint for sawing boards in incorrect lengths. He nearly died shortly afterward in a car accident that forced him to delay law school by a year.

Pressed for details on the accident, he said: "I was the first graduate of my Hebrew parochial school to get the last rites of the Catholic Church."

Known by his friends more often as "Michael" than "Mike," Mukasey has a dry and self-deprecating wit that "maybe doesn't come across when you first meet him," said longtime pal Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor and unsuccessful candidate for president. The two met in the early 1970s as federal prosecutors and have been close friends since.

"It's annoying to eat with him because he doesn't gain weight," Giuliani said. Recalling a trial they worked on together, Giuliani said, "every day we would have lunch together and he would order Ring Dings."

Giuliani added: "He is a very regular guy - no pretenses. He has a lot of humility for somebody who is as talented as he is. Sometimes that kind of talent and achievement brings a kind of arrogance or something. Right? Michael doesn't have that."

Mukasey fondly recalls his 18 years as a judge in the U.S. District Court in Manhattan, where he was chief judge for six years and presided over some of the first terrorism cases from the government's investigation of the 2001 attacks. It was a particularly liberating job compared to being caught up in the daily maelstrom at the Justice Department.

"When you're on the bench it's not a fair fight," he said. "You have the power as a judge to do two things that you can't do here: One is to take a recess and the other is to adjourn. And you can't stop it from happening here. Not in that way."

Given last year's tumult at the department, the partisan hiring and firing of prosecutors and the investigations that led to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' resignation, it is important for the public to feel comfortable with Mukasey, said political scientist and psychoanalyst Stanley Renshon.

"People want to make sure they're not getting another controversial figure," said Renshon, a professor at the City University of New York. "You want to have someone up there who gives the impression that they know what's going on. And once you have that confidence, I think you've really done your due diligence."

Mukasey has good reasons to keep his head down. The job of attorney general is a lightning rod, and Mukasey came in at a critical time.

As such, there were not a lot of bright spots in his first few months in Washington.

"For four to six weeks into it, I was - depressed is too strong a word - discouraged on a pretty frequent basis, particularly by the end of the day, at the fact that people kept coming in and describing situations that were in one way or another a problem, where something was wrong," he said.

"And then the light went on and it was, 'Look, dummy, you're in a job where nobody is going to come into your office like a messenger with winged feet to say there has just been a great success and this has gone right."'

Once he realized the job involved fixing problems and choosing the best option among bad solutions, "it didn't get a whole lot easier, but I wasn't quite in the emotional funk that I had been before," Mukasey said.

He calls his staff his saving grace, comparing himself to a bodysurfer diving into a mosh. "I'm in that position every day," he said. "They catch me and they get me, I feel, to a good place."

U.S. District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth, the incoming chief judge in the Washington federal courthouse, has known Mukasey for 20 years. He senses the attorney general has found his new job a struggle.

"It's difficult, but he has the skills and the ability to be up to the task," Lamberth said. Lamberth also called Mukasey a risk-taker, describing a judicial conference the two attended in Florida where Mukasey insisted on going parasailing over the objections of his U.S. Marshals security detail.

"The marshals were just holding their breath because they didn't want anything to happen to him," Lamberth said, chuckling. "I think it says a lot about the guy."

With only nine months left on the job, Mukasey is not sure what he's going to do after he leaves the Justice Department. He still will be working - "I have to because my creditors want to be paid," he said - and he wants to spend plenty of time with his wife, Susan, and the two grandsons who "make me very happy."

In sum, Mukasey said there was little to prepare him for being attorney general - for either the substance part of the job or the spotlight.

"This happened very quickly and I'd never thought much about the department." he said. "And in a way, that was a blessing because, although I understood once the process started that this was something very important, I had no idea of who was there, and what it would involve."

 

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