Alberto Gonzales is resigning as U.S. attorney general, and here is what critics of all stripes are saying: He was blindly, brainlessly loyal to President Bush, gave atrocious advice, was an incompetent managerial mangler and klutzy in his own self-defense.
His legacy includes a Department of Justice that’s demoralized and in disarray, argue some detractors who also aver his mistakes have been grievous to the point of costing him any hope that history will someday trot to his reputation’s rescue.
If there’s another side to this story — and I think there is — it’s not as if the critics can be easily dismissed. For starters, there was his advice as White House counsel that the executive branch could somehow indefinitely incarcerate American citizens without bringing charges against them. What Constitution did this graduate of Harvard Law School read?
Other objectionable advice was that the government monitor suspected communications between terrorists and U.S. residents without court warrants. There is testimony that he tried to pressure a sick, hospitalized John Ashcroft, then attorney general, to keep this surveillance program alive. It was indeed needed, but there was little excuse not to institute judicial oversight.
Where some critics go wrong is in supposing the Gonzales recommendations were nothing more than a lickspittle exercise of telling Bush what he wanted to hear. The assumption is that, for this hardworking son of a construction worker, being constantly in agreement was the loyal thing to do to a benefactor who as governor of Texas had appointed him to three top state positions and then, as president, brought him to Washington’s upper echelons.
Gonzales has surely been loyal to Bush, but a better explanation of his advice comes from a supporter pointing to Gonzales’ far-from-erroneous belief that the 9/11 attacks revealed a major security threat requiring different answers from what previously had protected the nation. It wasn’t spineless groveling that brought him to some advice that, in the estimation of many, went much too far, but a sense of immense responsibility for keeping this nation safe.
The critics seem to me most amiss in applauding the all-out assault on Gonzales for the firing of nine U.S. attorneys. While there are hints of unethical doings here, that’s about it: hints. Nothing illegal has been demonstrated, and it remains a fact despite leftist shoulder-shrugging that President Bill Clinton fired 93 U.S. attorneys as his political prerogative with scarcely a murmur of protest. In the minds of some Gonzales critics, the more you fire, the less likely you are firing any of them because they might do something disadvantageous to your political interests. What we have here is a line of reasoning so obtuse as to leave out the possibility of camouflage.
It’s nevertheless true that Gonzales has not explained himself well in all of this. Considering that this high-achieving Latino has demonstrated exceptional abilities and toughness of character as he has surmounted multiple barriers throughout his life, his near-incoherence seems strange, even if he is as guilty as critics imply. You finally figure that nothing prepared him to deal with Washington’s fierce, bloodletting partisanship that so obnoxiously and insistently parades itself as a devotion to high purpose.
And there is clearly a talent Gonzales does not have. He is no good at administering a large bureaucracy. He has done little worse as attorney general than some before him — Janet Reno was in several significant respects a disaster — but there’s hard evidence to back up the charge of a Department of Justice in need of repair, including empty positions central to the department’s operations.
In the end, the Gonzales story seems one about a decent man who came to Washington not as a total innocent, but as someone who didn’t know exactly what he was letting himself in for and without certain skills required for thriving or even surviving at top levels. He’s headed elsewhere soon, but may find himself pursued by D.C. sharks intent on taking more bites out of his hide. That possibility speaks more poorly of the country’s current political temper than it does of Gonzales.
(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)