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This year, no torture (or ethics)

The Associated Press headline that came over the wire on Wednesday said it all: "Gonzales Will Follow Non-Torture Policies."

You know how bad the situation is when the president's choice for attorney general has to formally pledge not to support torture anymore.

Alberto Gonzales may have been willing to legally justify something that was abhorrent to everything America stands for, but it's all relative. Given that Gonzales is replacing the odious John Ashcroft, Democrats didn't seem inclined to try to derail the Hispanic nominee, even though his memo fostered the atmosphere that led to disgusting scandals in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

Just to get things started on the right foot, though, Gonzales planned to go the extra mile and offer the quaint, obsolete Senate Democrats a more nuanced explanation of why he called the Geneva Conventions "quaint" and "obsolete."

Before he helped President Bush circumvent the accords and reserve the right to do so "in this or future conflicts," you had to tune in to an old movie with Nazi generals or Viet Cong guards if you wanted to see someone sneeringly shrug off the international treaty protecting prisoners from abuse. ("You worthless running dog Chuck Norris! What do we care about your silly Geneva Conventions?")

How are you to believe Gonzales when he says he's through with torture? His mission is clearly to do whatever he thinks Bush wants.

All gall is divided into parts, so what's next? The Commerce Department nominee promising that giveaways to big business will be done with subtlety?

The Environmental Protection Agency nominee promising that the toxin content in water will never rise to Yushchenko level?

It's comforting to start the new year in the hands of a party that cares so much about morals and values.

Tom DeLay and oily House Republicans inaugurated their new term by gutting ethics rules just in case any of them get caught in whatever misconduct they are plotting.

Rummy continued on his oblivious, dissembling path, refusing to admit that he's tapped out the Army and broken the Army Reserve with what Lt. Gen. James Helmly, the frustrated chief of the Army Reserve, calls "dysfunctional" policies. We've gotten so numb on Iraq that when eight American soldiers and more 80 Iraqi police officers get killed, the governor of Baghdad gets assassinated, and our puppets plead with Bush to delay the elections, it all seems like just another week of pre-election maneuvering.

In the Los Angeles Times, we learn that Bush fave Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas "has accepted tens of thousands of dollars worth of gifts since joining the high court, including $1,200 worth of tires, valuable historical items and a $5,000 personal check to help pay a relative's education expenses."

A guy we pay nearly $200,000 a year can't pop for his own tires? Whatever happened to the dignity of the robe? At least we know where our possible future chief justice stands: on the side of personal corruption.

"He also took a free trip aboard a private jet to the exclusive Bohemian Grove club in Northern California _ arranged by a wealthy Texas real estate investor who helped run an advocacy group that filed briefs with the Supreme Court," the paper said.

The L.A. Times reviewed the disclosures of all nine justices for the years 1998 through 2003 and found that "Thomas accepted $42,200 in gifts, making him the top recipient. Next in that period was Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who accepted $5,825 in gifts, mostly small crystal figurines and other items."

Clarence Thomas follows Antonin Scalia's lead on the law. Why not also on ethics? Scalia defended taking his relatives on a ride on Air Force Two to Louisiana with Dick Cheney to go duck hunting, even though the VP had an important case before the court, by saying that it would have been a "considerable inconvenience" to fly commercial.

Going through a blistering confirmation hearing where his inappropriate behavior was questioned didn't teach Clarence Thomas much. Can we hope for anything better from Gonzales after he's waved through to be the man in charge of enforcing our laws?

Maureen Dowd is a New York Times columnist.

New York Times News Service