Paul McNulty's resignation from the second highest job in the Justice Department couldn't have come at a worse time for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales even if the financial needs of raising a family was McNulty's primary motivation and not the political scandal swirling around the firing of the U.S. attorneys. The pressure for Gonzales to follow suit has just been turned up.

McNulty's testimony to Congress was just a bit too candid for the White House when he said one of the prosecutors was dumped to make room for a Karl Rove ally and not for poor performance, which was what he had been led to believe.

While the Judiciary Committee Democrats forgave him for the inaccuracy, the White House didn't, pretty much dashing his hopes for advancement to the federal bench. He might get confirmed for such a spot even in the Democratic Senate but he clearly felt a nomination would not be forthcoming.

So whether true or not, he will be added unfairly to the list of department resignations — now at four — because of the dismissals. The injustice of course is that McNulty is probably the last person one wants to lose in government, which is far more than can be said about the others and, for that matter, his boss. A former U.S. attorney, he has spent 20 years in unblemished service and only became deputy attorney general a short time ago clearly believing it would result in a lifetime judicial appointment. He won't be the first to get caught in the political meat grinder just among the more innocent.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch as they used to say in the old radio days, "Tex" Gonzales is looking more and more like the Lone Ranger after being abandoned by Tonto and facing an increasingly ferocious band of Senate gunslingers led by the resolute Democratic Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont. Even the great horse Silver seems to have wandered off, leaving him to shoot this out to the death. That probably won't be too long now unless, which is highly probable, President Bush continues his stubborn refusal to realize the inevitable. How can one man be so much in denial about so many things?

Few messes have been more miserably handled in modern memory. The irony of all this is that U.S. attorneys are in fact the most political positions in the Justice Department. They are totally dependent on party and individual patronage and they serve at the pleasure of the president and are subject to dismissal at any time for whatever reason.

Having said that, the current controversy is the result of an inexperienced cadre of novices and an inept attorney general who could have halted the entire process by being forthright. It has been among the more amateur performances on record. One of the heavies, Monica Goodling, who refused to testify on grounds of self- incrimination, had laughable credentials and pathetic judgment, conducting incredibly improper interrogations of department applicants. Just the fact she was in a position to do so reveals an utter lack of professionalism by the Gonzales team.

Even understanding the long association and friendship between Bush and Gonzales going back to Texas days, the hard realities are that the already beleaguered chief executive doesn't need this at a time of crisis overseas and any number of major problems at home. Furthermore, the chaos in the Justice Department and the time given over to trying to bring order out of it makes Gonzales effectiveness about zero on a scale of one to 10. If he personally doesn't see the damage to his friend, how great a friend can he be? He needs to leave, one -way or the other.

Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee are going to have their pound of flesh on this. They are not going to let it go away and the leverage they will use is to question and delay every judicial and Justice appointment in the president's remaining 18 months in office. That's a sure bet. This entire episode falls under the heading of pay back for 12 years of roughshod Republicanism or at least what the Democrats under Leahy regard as such. It is definitely time for the White House to cut its losses on this.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)