Gizzi on Politics: Special Edition

The Newest Washington Dinner Party Game: “Who After Gonzales?”

When my wife and I agreed to a dinner invitation for Thursday evening in which guests included a high-powered Washington attorney, a top lobbyist for the auto industry, and the chief of staff to a senior congressman, I could almost guest the “party game” in two evenings: “Guess who will succeed Al Gonzales as attorney general?”

It has to happen: whenever official Washington is jolted by an exit of a high official, the newspapers and television networks immediately start speculation who the successor is.  Never mind the fact that only one person really has any clue as to the answer is and he is in far-off Crawford, Texas.  But that doesn’t stop speculation from folks who really don’t have any clue:  my colleagues in the White House press corps, the “talking heads” on Sunday morning television programs, and my distinguished hosts on Thursday (Hey, fellas — if you’re reading this, I hope you won’t take it the wrong way and cancel my invitation for dinner!)

So, for dinner party-goers here in Washington, here’s a breakdown on the players who may succeed Al Gonzales when he leaves the Justice Department in about 210 days — or, then again, they may not succeed him:

“The Confirmables” — Sen. Orrin Hatch (R.-Utah) and former Sen. John Danforth (R.-Mo.) are card-carrying members of the “Club,” the Senate (Danforth’s, like that of other former senators, is for life) and should sail through confirmation hearings.  True, the late Sen. John Tower (R.-Tex.) failed to win confirmation when named as secretary of defense in 1989 and former Sen. John Ashcroft (R.-Mo.) had unusually harsh confirmation hearings and substantial votes against him when George W. Bush tapped him as attorney general in ’01.  But Tower and Ashcroft were not Senate insiders and had rubbed their share of colleagues the wrong way; Hatch — who, if appointed, would be succeeded by a Republican senator named by Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman — and Danforth, a former state attorney general, are on the inside.  At 73 and 71 respectively, Hatch and Danforth are not going to use the position to go anywhere else.

“The Wise Men” — Abraham Lincoln tapped Washington “superlawyer” Edwin Stanton, once attorney general in a Democratic Administration, to be secretary of war as the union was breaking up and Lyndon Johnson turned to another Washington “superlawyer” and insider, Clark Clifford, as secretary of defense in his final year as president.  These are just a few examples of Presidents selecting appointees so wired to Washington, so adept at insider politics and with rolodexes that put them in touch with leaders of both parties. 

Using this patten of choosing a “wise man,” Bush could name former Deputy Attorney General George Terwiliger or retired U.S. Appellate Judge Lawrence Silberman, who has held major appointments in Republican Administrations going back to Richard Nixon. 

Ted Olson, solicitor general in Bush’s first Administration and himself a past partner in the blue-chip firm of Gibson, Dunn, and Crutcher — also fits in that category (although the 66-year-old Olson could run into some Senate fire, as he did when named solicitor general, over his role as a Bush lawyer in the case that led to Florida’’s electoral votes eventually making the Republican president in 2000.) 

“The Lightning Rod” — Michael Chertoff got tremendous ink in the moments after Gonzales’ resignation was announced.  As a former U.S. Attorney and federal judge, Harvard Law graduate Chertoff certainly has the credentials.  But he would almost certainly set up the stage for a firestorm if his name is sent to the Senate — particularly on the second anniversary of Katrina, the low point of the Bush Administration for Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff.

“The Dark Horses” — Bush could reinvigorate his political base by naming a younger conservative who is known and liked by the political base of the Republican Party:  former Rep. and U.S. Attorney Asa Hutchinson, a past assistant secretary of homeland security, former Virginia Gov. and state attorney general Jim Gilmore, and former Rep. and present Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Chris Cox come immediately to mind. 

The stumbling block therein for each of them is that they are all relatively young and have potentially good political futures.  Do they really want to be attorney general for fifteen months in a lameduck Administration?  Also in the category of dark horses are the little-known figures left in the Justice Department that the President could move up:  Solicitor General Paul Clement, who becomes acting attorney general as the next in the chain of command, or Michael Sullivan, acting head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosive.

“The Woman of Intrigue” — Fran Fragos Townsend, who has won high marks for her appearances on talk shows and televised briefings on terrorism, is by far the most intriguing choice in terms of her resume:  as an assistant U.S. Attorney in New York under Rudy Giuliani, as an FBI official under Director Louis Freeh (in which capacity she worked closely with the late FBI Agent John O’Neill, who discovered Bin Laden and was later killed at the World Trade Center on 9/11), a Justice Department official in the Clinton years, and finally, White House homeland security adviser to President Bush.  Her problem would be with the Republican base:  could someone who worked for eight years with Attorney General Janet Reno be trusted in a Republican Justice Department?

So there you have it.  Please read, study, and play the Washington dinner party game.  Now, if you can come up with some more intriguing possibilities — say, former UN Ambassador John Bolten or Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, whose exit from the Senate would let Republican Gov. Jodi Rell tip the Senate to GOP hands — go for it.  You don’t know any less than those playing the game now do. 

A source close to the current government in Tokyo insisted to me today that Japan’s proposed ballistic missile system would proceed despite a devastating election set back to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his resultant Cabinet shakeup yesterday.

Japan Will Proceed With Ballistic Missile Defense System, Insists Tokyo Source

“Look — we are so close to countries like North Korea and Communist China that no one [in Japan] has even suggested that we don’t go through on the missile system,” the source, who requested anonymity, told me this afternoon.

Since becoming prime minister last year, Abe has made it clear he wants to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution, the first step of which would be a missile system.  However, following the elections last month in which Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party was routed by opposition leader Ichio Ozawa’s opposition Democratic Party (DPJ), there have been questions in Washington whether the prime minister would be forced to retreat on missile defense. 

Those doubts were heightened this week when Abe kept his promise for a massive reshuffle of his Cabinet in response to the election setback.  My source told me that this reshuffling would not have any effect on the Abe government’s commitment to missile defense.  He  noted that the new defense minister (Abe’s third since becoming prime minister), is someone well-known to the Bush Administration and other American leaders:  Masahiko Komura, formerly foreign minister and justice minister.  The 65-year-old Komura, my source assured me, “is not someone who would tell the prime minister to go back on missile defense.”