Yoo, Esquire, and Disgrace

The first time I met John Yoo was in the E ring of the Pentagon in 2003 or so, near Don Rumsfeld’s Office. He was carrying squash gear, as were his Pentagon pals, giving the E ring something of the atmosphere of a locker room. Yoo, a young man, was obsequiously hamming it up with the Pentagon’s general counsel among the people he was meant to be controlling. Honored with laughter and respect, he seemed to be basking in the joys of being one of the gang. 

At that exact moment, unbidden, the word “sycophant” came into my head, and there it has remained. That Yoo’s memo consists of highly formalized boot-licking is no surprise but a reflection of what was going on anyhow.

Esquire ‘s interview of John Yoo provides some support for Ron Rosenbaum’s theory that profiles should more often be written without the participation of the subject. We don’t know much about what the profile will be like, and it may be better. But the interview is mainly a platform for Yoo’s defensiveness. John Richardson is a good writer who has done great pieces in the past. But this interview shows few signs and includes the cringe-worthy “John, you’re a very engaging guy, I like you I can’t picture you writing that phrase ‘organ failure or death.’ ”

The memo isn’t new news. But I agree with Dahlia that its blandness and boringness is part of the news. And it does confirm that whatever else happens, John Yoo is disgraced and should remain so unless he one day apologizes. His sin is well-identified by Dawn, who had his job  (Dawn, incidently, was the boss during my extremely short stay at the OLC, so if you want to say I’m being a sycophant, go ahead). He did the opposite of probably the most important thing that the OLC is supposed to do: tell the government what it can’t legally do. He, instead, twisted the law to give his client, the White House, the answer they wanted. 

The lawyer is always at risk of becoming his client’s lapdog. Legal boot-licking may be a constant temptation in legal practice, and it is something that happens too often, but it’s obvious to any lawyer that it is wrong. And the higher the stakes, the worse the sin. Yoo, when tested, failed completely.

Finally: In the Esquire interview Yoo spends lots of time suggesting, basically, that anyone would have done what he did. Nonsense. Jack Goldsmith, among others, faced up to the enormous pressure he was placed under to deliver the “right” answers. Some might argue that there was probably more Jack could have stood up to, but he stood up to a lot, and at huge personal and (at the time) professional cost. Yoo, instead, took the easy way out. That may have led to some friendly squash games, but also something else: enduring disgrace.