"What do I need to do? What can we do to end this?” That was Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s plaint a couple of weeks ago as the controversy about the U.S. attorney scandal began to run out of control.
The odds are that it won’t end until Gonzales resigns. Is that fair? Probably not. Unless it is shown that he deliberately lied in the misrepresentations he made about his role in the firings (he says they were innocent), he wouldn’t deserve defenestration over this. But life isn’t fair, which is why a Texas lawyer who happens to know George W. Bush is attorney general of the United States in the first place.
If Gonzales goes, it will begin to bring to a calamitous close a style of governing that hasn’t served the Bush administration well. Bush has overrelied on a team of loyalists — often from Texas — who weren’t always the best or the brightest. This hardly accounts for all his problems — Iraq was mishandled by heavyweights like former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld — but it has lent added credibility to charges of incompetence.
The U.S. attorneys flap represents the perfect conflagration of Bush loyalists. It began with the asinine suggestion of then-White House counsel Harriet Miers that Bush begin his second term by sacking all 93 U.S. attorneys. Yes, President Clinton fired all the U.S. attorneys when he took office, but they were all appointees of another president.
Miers is a Bush friend from Texas who was removed as White House counsel as soon as Democrats took control of Congress, because the White House realized it needed better lawyering. Never mind that Bush had tried to elevate her all the way to the Supreme Court. When administration officials finger Miers for her role in the U.S. attorneys controversy, you can almost hear the unstated addendum, “And we all know she really didn’t know what she was doing.”
Then it was over to Gonzales, another Bush friend from Texas. As NRO's Andy McCarthy notes, there was one person in the country who thought Gonzales should become attorney general, and he was George Bush.
Gonzales’s defense of his misleading statements that the Justice Department didn’t coordinate on the firings with the White House is that he didn’t know his chief of staff had done exactly that for more than a year. Ordinarily, it would be laughable for an attorney general to claim he was out of the loop on such a sensitive question, but with Gonzales, it has a certain disturbing plausibility.
Bush placed such trust in Miers and Gonzales because they passed his “good man” or “good woman” test. He got to know them and concluded they had good hearts. This might be true, but it says nothing about their ability to carry out high governmental functions.
Once Bush finds a “good man,” he always wants to stand by him, a tendency deeply embedded in his management style. In an essay on Bush as part-owner of the Texas Rangers, David Brooks noted an incident when manager Kevin Kennedy let star outfielder Jose Canseco pitch an inning in a blowout, and Canseco hurt his arm. “I’m not going to second-guess my manager,” Bush said in a statement that, if you substitute “general” for “manager,” could have been made during the first three years of the Iraq War.
Bush thinks that it’s his role to delegate, reasonably enough. But he had better have top-notch people beneath him and hold them accountable — something his loyalty to his team has sometimes kept him from doing.
If Gonzales is forced out, it will be the departure of a characteristic Bush loyalist just as Bush’s approach to management has begun to change. At the beginning of the year, he jettisoned his “my team, right or wrong” approach to Iraq, removing his defense secretary and generals and forging a new strategy. The Walter Reed debacle was met with a round of swift firings rather than wagon-circling. Maybe it’s a new day.