President Bush began the new year with a bipartisan gesture, appointing former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush to head up a massive aid effort for tsunami victims in South Asia. But congressional Democrats aren't likely to reciprocate. The first test comes Thursday when the president's pick for attorney general, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, faces the Senate Judiciary Committee. When President Bush announced his choice in November, most observers thought Gonzales would be easily confirmed, but he now faces some stiff opposition.
The first Hispanic ever nominated to be attorney general, Gonzales's life story exemplifies the American Dream. He was the second of eight children born to Mexican migrant workers in Texas. Although his parents never finished elementary school, Gonzales graduated from Harvard Law School (after spending four years in the U.S. Air Force), was later appointed to the Texas Supreme Court by then Gov. George W. Bush, and became one of the president's top White House advisers.
Most of the major Hispanic groups greeted Gonzales's appointment enthusiastically, which should have ensured Gonzales some immunity from persecution by the Democrats. Hector Flores, head of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the nation's oldest Hispanic organization, recently told Dallas Morning News columnist Ruben Navarrette Jr. that Gonzales's confirmation is his group's top priority. "Who can challenge his background and his education? It would be disrespectful for anyone to say he's not competent," Flores told Navarrette. Maybe that's why some left-leaning groups have decided to take another tack, accusing the soft-spoken Gonzales of being a modern-day Torquemada. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the Center for American Progress, the Alliance for Justice and others have charged that Gonzales "paved the way for the horrific torture at Abu Ghraib."
At issue is Gonzales's role in reviewing legal documents on whether the Geneva Conventions apply to enemy combatants captured by the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Geneva Conventions specifically guarantee the safety of soldiers fighting on behalf of nations or liberation movements. Insisting that the Conventions should govern our treatment of terrorists who owe no allegiance to any state or liberation movement -- and whose primary targets are not soldiers but civilians -- could well undermine the very protections of the Conventions. But whether or not you agree with that assessment, it's quite a stretch to blame Gonzales for the rogue sex and torture ring run by a handful of perverted American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison. Lynndie England, Charles Graner and the others accused of abusing prisoners were seeking sick thrills, not wartime intelligence. But that won't stop some partisans from trying to embarrass President Bush by re-hashing Abu Ghraib when Gonzales appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The Democrats are playing with fire by going after Gonzales in a blatantly partisan fashion, but it's not the first time they've used such tactics against a Bush nominee. Miguel Estrada, President Bush's original choice for a seat on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, faced similar opposition -- as does Janice Rogers Brown, the California Supreme Court judge whom the president nominated for the same seat after a threatened Democratic filibuster doomed Estrada's confirmation. What all three have in common -- in addition to being highly qualified lawyers -- is that they are also members of minority groups, African American in the case of Brown. It irks some Democrats that a Republican president keeps naming blacks and Hispanics to such unprecedented, high-level posts.
Liberals believe they own the franchise on minorities and can't stand any Hispanic or black who breaks rank. Gonzales deserves better than he's likely to get at the hands of Senate Democrats this week. In the end, he will probably be confirmed, and the Democrats will have succeeded only at making themselves look bad and alienating not just Gonzales, but lots of other Hispanics.