After Gonzales

Robert Novak's picture

WASHINGTON — One day after Alberto Gonzales submitted his resignation as attorney general and two days before it was made public, White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten was on the phone Saturday feeling out who might be available as a replacement.

That Bolten had a short list in hand indicates that even if George W. Bush had been ready to ride out his presidency with his dear friend at the Justice Department, senior aides were eager to staunch the political bleeding.

It was not surprising that nobody on Bolten’s short list resembled Gonzales (thought it would be hard to find anyone so inappropriate for the job). But the caliber of possible selections means President Bush is not content with a placeholder sure of Senate confirmation. It also suggests a seriousness of purpose not evident when Bush transplanted Texas aides to Washington.

The president bemoans Gonzales falling victim to a Democratic lynch mob. But silence prevailed among Republicans in Congress who had to deal with the infuriating attorney general (with the rare of exception of Gonzales’s fellow former Texas Supreme Court justice, Sen. John Cornyn). Given the president’s track record, these Republicans have feared the worst about his successor.

So, Bolten’s short list is a pleasant surprise. It includes former Solicitor General Ted Olson, an accomplished lawyer and resolute conservative.

According to administration sources, the list also includes two well-regarded former deputy attorney generals: George Terwilliger, a veteran prestige Washington lawyer, and Laurence Silberman, a longtime judge on the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia now on senior status.

Those choices show that Bush is not taking the very bad advice that he name a non-political academic along the lines of Edward Levi, the University of Chicago president named attorney general by President Gerald Ford. Levi, hardly in the tradition of the office, turned out to be Ford’s enemy within. Not every president need select his own brother as John F. Kennedy did, but a friendly face at Justice is needed.

It was just that President Bush went too far in picking a friend who was loyal but incompetent (a complaint never lodged against Bobby Kennedy). All of Gonzales’s senior political positions in Texas — secretary of state, governor’s legal counsel and Supreme Court justice — were thanks to Bush’s patronage. As president, Bush was less interested in quality than loyalty, as he transported Texas aides to Washington.

I met Gonzales for the first time in 2001 when, along with other conservative journalists, I went to the White House for a background briefing on the new president’s judicial nominations by presidential counsel Gonzales.

I was stunned by the incoherence by the briefer. After checking with several Republican senators, I received the same verdict. Their judgment was that Gonzales was not qualified for a senior government position.

Gonzales’s handling of the crisis over the firing of U.S. attorneys set new standards for incompetence. In the midst of the furor, he agreed to address the National Press Club May 15 (insisting on breakfast instead of the usual lunch). It by chance was the 44th anniversary of this column, and I never before had seen anything like it.

Gonzales arrived in time for the speech without making a customary greeting to other head table guests. With the capital poised for something about the U.S. attorneys affair, he delivered an irrelevant speech prepared by the Justice bureaucracy. In the question-and-answer period, however, Gonzales repeatedly blamed the problem on Paul McNulty, who had resigned that day as his deputy.

Leaving the Justice Department does not mean Gonzales is safe from the Senate’s Democratic sharks led by Patrick Leahy and Charles Schumer — including contempt of Congress charges.

But the president’s concern now is getting his new attorney general past the Senate Judiciary Committee. Everybody on the short list can count on trouble from Leahy and Schumer. It is questionable whether any of them would undergo that harrowing experience for 16 months in a lame-duck administration.

In Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, former Republican Justice Department officials said the new attorney general must protect presidential prerogatives against congressional encroachment. That is correct, but George W. Bush can blame himself and Alberto Gonzales for the impending danger.


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