Bush Behind Barricades

WASHINGTON — A report as routine as what was put out by the Identity Theft Task Force Monday normally is released without a White House statement, but this time the announcement came from George W. Bush himself. He praised Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales "for taking on this difficult and important assignment" in co-chairing the task force. That constituted bad news for Republicans outside the White House, signaling that the president really does intend to keep Gonzales in office.

Bush going out of his way to praise his beleaguered friend from Texas only confirmed signals sent this week. The president’s improbable praise for Gonzales’s pathetic performance as a witness before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week was no mere gesture. The authoritative word from the White House was that Bush was adamant about retaining Gonzales as attorney general despite Republican demands that the president cut his losses with a new face at Justice.

Vice President Dick Cheney’s personal criticism Tuesday of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in a rare statement just off the Senate floor suggested that defense of Gonzales is not an isolated act of defiance. Bush, never entranced by life in Washington, detests dealing with a Democratic Congress. Reflecting annoyance and fatigue, he is unwilling to withstand incessant attacks from the likes of Reid and is ready to fight it out for the more than a year and a half remaining in his term. Retaining Gonzales means Bush has slipped behind the barricades.

All the Republicans in Congress who I have contacted view this posture by Bush to be pure folly. For the long term, they predict their president’s intent to wage constant warfare against the majority Democrats will cast a pall on Republican chances of retaining the presidency in 2008. For the shorter term, they foresee nothing but trouble from Gonzales continuing in power. "I cannot imagine," said a House GOP leader, who would not be quoted by name, "how [Bush] thinks Gonzales can function effectively with no Republican support."

Gonzales’s difficulties did not begin with the botched dismissal of U.S. attorneys or his serial memory failure. Much as Bill Clinton sought to replicate in Washington the culture of Little Rock by bringing along Vince Foster and Webster Hubbell, Bush imported such close associates from Austin as Gonzales and Harriet Miers.

While the current cliché is that Bush never should have named Gonzales as attorney general in the first place, the consensus in the administration was that he also was at sea in his first post as White House counsel. Colin Powell, Bush’s first-term secretary of state, was so appalled by Gonzales that he shunted contact with him off to Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage, who in turn handed him down to lower levels along the State Department chain of command.

Such derision of Gonzales is viewed by Bush as the arrogance of Washington, and he seems determined not to appease that mindset. For now at least, the president refuses to yield on grounds that Gonzales — whatever his shortcomings — broke no laws.

Bush’s position, however, may be undermined by an unexpected development this week. It was announced that a little known government agency — the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, headed by Scott J. Bloch — has launched an investigation into possible illegal White House political participation in the case of the U.S. attorneys. The irony here was not noted in early news accounts.

Bloch, a devout Catholic, has been under attack for three years in leading the independent investigative agency because of his interpretation of statutes covering workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. He also has been publicly accused of hiring too many Catholics. Clay Johnson, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget and another Texan brought to Washington by Bush, joined the attack on Bush-appointee Bloch. The case became a cause celebre on the Right when Bloch was told by a prominent Catholic layman close to Bush that it would be better if he just resigned.

Now, the tables are turned with Bloch investigating the White House. In an administration in trouble on several fronts, the president barricading himself with Al Gonzales by his side does not help.