As Attorney General Alberto Gonzales prepares to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday, the official question is: Will the former White House counsel be able to talk himself out of a scandal involving the firing of US Attorneys, the politicization of federal prosecutions, Karl Rove’s “lost” e-mails and the little matter of lying to Congress?

But that’s not the question that matters.

Gonzales is finished. The best he can accomplish is a stay of execution that would allow him to remain at the Department of Justice until the controversy dies down enough for him to quietly slip out the back door late on one of those Friday afternoons when the Bush administration gets rid of its embarrassments. Were Gonzales to be allowed to remain in his position through the remainder of Bush’s term, it would make America over as a land without laws or even the barest sense of propriety.

That might have been a viable prospect when the US was passing through the dark interregnum of one-party rule that defined the first years of the 21st century. But it is unlikely with a Congress now controlled by the opposition Democrats, and with Senate and House judiciary committees composed of Democrats and even a few Republicans who have displayed the backbones that were in such short supply prior of November 7 of last year. Just consider Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy’s response to the White House’s “lost” e-mails lie — “Those e-mails are there, they just don’t want to produce them. We’ll subpoena them if necessary…” – and it becomes clear that the system of checks and balances is being renewed.

The question that remains, however – and this is the question that matters – has to do with whether the renewal will be as complete as the founders would have wanted.

To answer that question, members of Congress, as well as the media and the American people, need to recognize that what is at stake now is not Alberto Gonzales’ career. It is George Bush’s presidency.

The great lost admission of the whole US Attorneys scandal came at a press briefing on March 13, when White House counselor Dan Bartlett acknowledged that the President was aware of complaints from Republicans around the country that US Attorneys were not using their positions to pursue the so-called “voter fraud” cases that the party had made a central focus of its efforts to erect barriers to voter participation–by eliminating same-day registration in the states where it is allowed, requiring Voter IDs and otherwise making it harder for Americans to participate in the political process.

“That information, it’s incumbent upon us to share with the relevant Cabinet officers, incumbent upon the President to do that, as well,” said Bartlett. “The President did that briefly, in a conversation he had with the Attorney General in October of 2006, in which, in a wide-ranging conversation on a lot of different issues, this briefly came up and the President said, I’ve been hearing about this election fraud matters from members of Congress, want to make sure you’re on top of that, as well. There was no directive given, as far as telling him to fire anybody or anything like that. That would be under the prerogative of the Justice Department to take a look at those issues, as they obviously were doing.”

Bartlett was trying to cover the president’s backside by claiming Bush did not order the firing of the eight US Attorneys who were removed. But the firings of the eight are a secondary issue when compared to the question of what the 85 US Attorneys who were not fired did to keep their jobs–and to thwart the rule of law.

Bartlett inadvertently acknowledged Bush involvement in the most serious aspect of the scandal: the politicization of prosecutions. Of course, Bush will claim ignorance of specific firings. So be it.

What Bartlett gave us in March was confirmation that the president was aware of, indeed supportive of, efforts by key players in his own party to prod U.S. Attorneys to do their bidding. That bidding was never ill-defined; Republicans at the state level and in Washington wanted federal prosecutors to launch conveniently-timed investigations and prosecutions that might harm Democrats, and to back off inconvenient inquiries into the actions of Republicans.

That Bush was deep into the politics of this scandal should come as no surprise. Anyone who has followed this president closely knows that he becomes most engaged when the discussion turns to electoral politics – the one subject, aside from baseball, about which he is genuinely well-versed. Keen observers of this administration’s inner workings know, as well, that it would be comic to think that this most political of presidents was not conscious of the ramifications of what was being discussed at the meeting Bartlett described. Indeed, the only thing more comic would be a suggestion that Gonzales, who is about nothing so much as doing Bush’s bidding, would miss the cue from the president.

Will the truth come out?

Those e-mails from Rove–currently “lost” but soon to be found–will help the process along, as will all of the other documents that Congressional investigators have requested. And testimony from the White House political czar, and from other political players who were in communication with Rove and the president – testimony that will have to be compelled by Congress–could well begin to close the circle.

Ultimately, even in this administration, someone might start telling the truth. And the truth is that Gonzales has never been anything but a bit player. The controversy that matters is not about the Attorney General’s hiring practices. It is about a lawless administration, and the president who has led this country further and further from its Constitutional moorings.

Let the hearings begin. And let them proceed until there is a restoration of the rule of law, and the republic it sustains.

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John Nichols’ new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders’ Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson hails it as a “nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe ‘heroic medicine’ that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to ‘reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.”