This is a historic date, and not just because Attorney General Alberto Gonzales resigned from office. It also marks the first (and possibly the last) time that I have ever said anything nice about John Edwards’ heretofore atrocious presidential campaign. The Edwards’ campaign terse candidate statement nicely summed up the views of many conservatives regarding the embattled Attorney General’s departure: “Better late than never.”
To be clear, I’m not on the “Attorney General Gonzales is evil” bandwagon that much of the left and some of the right has jumped on. By most accounts of people who actually know him, Gonzales is a good man. He is the epitome of the American dream. The son of migrant workers, he raised himself up from the small town of Humble, Texas, to become a partner at one of the largest law firms in Texas, before proceeding to the Supreme Court of Texas, and finally becoming consigliore to the President of the United States.
But the sad truth is that Attorney General Gonzales was in over his head at the Justice Department. There are many government jobs where one can succeed without getting involved in the minutiae of policy decisions. A high profile job like Attorney General is not one of them. It was because of his lack of attention to detail and overdelegation that Gonzales’s tenure is a failure, not his lack of ethics.
The contretemps over the firing of nine United States Attorneys is a classic example of this. There is little dispute in Washington that, for better or for worse, these political appointees serve at the pleasure of the President. Because they are political appointees, they are not intended to be completely independent of the President. A competent Attorney General would have hewn to that line early, and often. More importantly, a competent Attorney General would have seen the controversy that these firings would engender, and would have been involved with them from the outset to make sure that they were done in a manner that would withstand public scrutiny.
Instead, it became clear that an inordinate amount of work relating to the firings was simply delegated to his thirty-something Chief of Staff, Kyle Sampson and liaison to the White House, Monica Goodling. Because of this delegation, Gonzales was caught flat-footed when the controversy erupted. And the Department’s response was nothing sort of embarrasing. Republicans squirmed in March when Gonzales walked unprepared into a press conference, without any notes. Rather than asserting the President’s prerogative to fire political appointees, Gonzales seemed unable to articulate a reasoning for the firings, and found himself caught in a series of sometimes-contradictory statements about the reasoning for the firings. The initial explanation, that the U.S. Attorneys were fired for performance-related reasons, seemed unsupportable. Worse, it drew the ire of many of the terminated U.S. Attorneys, who were forced to defend their professional reputations publicly.
Again, there is little direct evidence that these firings were intended to influence ongoing investigations; indeed the steady stream of Republicans who find themselves under Justice Department scrutiny should give the lie to such notions. In Washington, though, the perceived coverup is always worse than the crime, and the series of Justice Department officials paraded in front of the Judiciary Committees has had an awful affect on morale at the Department, which is at all-time low by all accounts.
This could not happen at a worse time for the Administration. New battles are brewing, especially over the amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Democrats may be prepping to cut back some of the Administration’s other techniques for fighting the War on Terror. And a number of terror-related cases are heading for the United States Supreme Court. All of these things counsel for a strong Attorney General with an unsullied reputation. Gonzales no longer fits that bill, and has not for a very, very long time.
On a broader scale, however, the Gonzales affair represents everything that has gone wrong with this Administration in its second term. Gonzales’ main qualification for the job, it seems, now appears to be that he was a close friend of the President. While too much has been made of the idea that the Attorney General is supposed to be completely independent of the President, the degree of closeness between Gonzales and this President, though hardly unprecedented, falls into a seemingly endless stream of inept cronies elevated to positions of importance that far outstrip their abilities, perhaps epitomized by President Bush’s attempt to elevate Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court of the United States (which, to his credit, Gonzales opposed).
More importantly, though, President Bush’s unswerving loyalty to his friends proved once again to be an overwhelming liability. While loyalty is a trait that is sorely lacking in this day and age, in politics it can easily go too far. Yet, amazingly, President Bush seemed to accept Gonzales’s resignation only reluctantly. Yes, loyalty is a good thing, but this clearly goes to far; at a time when Congress was in recess and the scandal had quieted down, it was the pitch-perfect time for Gonzales to spend some more time with his family. Instead, the President seemed more intent on keeping up the fight until the bitter end, a trait that is sometimes admirable, but has also proved damaging to this Administration.
President Bush has many good choices for Attorney General, and hopefully he will choose an independent voice with impeccable personal credentials. Ideally, this person would not be someone with a longstanding relationship with the President, but rather will be someone who can go to war for the President’s prerogatives while still preserving his independence. The track record, sadly, gives only slight reason for optimism here.