Debra J. Saunders

"I have lived the American dream. Even my worst days as attorney general have been better than my father's best days," outgoing Attorney General Alberto Gonzales noted during a press conference Monday.

Credit Gonzales for leaving not with a whimper, but with the knowledge that as rough as Washington gets, no one can take from him the accomplishment of, as the son of a Mexican-born construction worker, becoming America's first Latino attorney general. In his exit, Gonzales showed himself to be, as President Bush would say, "a good man."

But as this president tends to learn too late: You can be a good man, but not the right man for the job.

"It's sad that we live in a time when a talented and honorable person like Alberto Gonzales is impeded from doing important work because his good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons," Bush said Monday. Actually, Gonzales did the damage to himself.

I wrote in March that Gonzales should resign after he fudged explaining why the administration fired eight U.S. attorneys. Gonzales should have been honest and admitted that the administration discarded the U.S. attorneys for political reasons. Instead, he wrote in USA Today that he asked them to resign for "performance-related" reasons, and because they "simply lost my confidence."

By that standard, the credibility-impaired Gonzales should have walked then -- not late in a year in which close to a dozen top Justice Department staffers resigned.

Or as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told reporters Monday, "It had to happen."

As the months dragged on, the best Republicans could say in Gonzales' defense was that the attorney general did not perjure himself when he testified before the Senate, but was misleading under cover of law.

While the left objected to Gonzales' hard line in the war on terrorism, many conservatives believed that his office was wrong to prosecute Border Patrol agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean for shooting at a fleeing drug smuggler and covering up the action. The prosecution resulted in draconian sentences -- 11 years and 12 years -- for the agents, while the smuggler is free and suing the federal government.

I figured that the Bushies had decided that if Gonzales left, congressional Democrats would respond by poking at a new administration biggie. So the ever-loyal Gonzales stayed on as Bush administration's designated punching bag.

Besides, as GOP strategist Ken Khachigian, who served in the Nixon and Reagan administrations, explained, "Alberto Gonzales was hardly the big casino" when it comes to issues that affect Americans in everyday life. With the country at war, Gonzales' plight was mainly of interest to political insiders. (Note the recent Gallup poll that found the approval rating of Congress among Americans had sunk to 18 percent -- by comparison, the Bush 32 percent approval rating looks stellar.)

What next? Khachigian does not expect the congressional hearings and investigations to abate. "They won't stop," Khachigian noted. "He'll be called in for more hearings. They've got their teeth in his neck now, and they'll keep shaking him until he's a limp rag."

Feinstein told reporters that the head of steam may have gone out of the investigation, but also, "I think we have to get to the roots of it because I think we have to prevent this from ever happening again."

Now Bush has to name a successor who can withstand Senate scrutiny -- which will be elevated with four Democratic senators, and one Republican senator, running for the White House.

Normally, the easy route would be to nominate a Republican senator -- as senators tend to gush when one of their own, regardless of party, is named to a Cabinet post.

But with the news that Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in an airport men's bathroom (not to mention the escort service-client Sen. David Vitter, R-La.), Bush would have to think twice. Suddenly it is too clear why Dubya values loyalty and prefers to name people he knows to Cabinet posts.


Debra J. Saunders


 
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