Alberto Gonzales became intimately familiar with what departing White House adviser Karl Rove calls "the mob" -- the howling mass of Democratic members of Congress, bloggers and media commentators who despise all things Bush. His tenure as attorney general, and now his departure, represent a triumph for the mob.
The mob doesn't win only when it chases a target from office. It also scores a subtle victory when it forces the administration to keep in office an ineffectual or politically wounded official to demonstrate that it won't get pushed around by its frenzied detractors. Thus, Gonzales remained attorney general long after everyone but President Bush had decided that he was ill-suited for the job. The administration suffered months of unnecessary embarrassment as it stuck by Gonzales on the theory that giving in to the mob would be worse -- only to see Gonzales resign anyway.
The timing of Gonzales' departure is reminiscent of Don Rumsfeld's. The secretary of defense's mishandling of the Iraq War extracted the maximum possible political damage prior to the 2006 elections, and he left the day after. The mob targeted Rumsfeld, and so did retired generals whose criticisms made Bush think that keeping Rumsfeld made an important statement about civilian control of the Pentagon. Bush defied Rummy's detractors, but only at a grave cost to himself; if he had forced him out earlier, Republicans might have held the Senate.
Gonzales never should have been selected as attorney general in the first place. His appointment speaks to a sentimentality on Bush's part. He loved Gonzales' story of growing up with parents who were migrant workers who never finished elementary school, then his going on to graduate from Harvard Law School. Bush trusted and liked him, and that -- as happened with other members of his Texas inner circle -- blinded him to his friend's limitations.
Little did Bush realize the disservice he had done Gonzales. When the controversy broke over the entirely defensible firings of eight U.S. attorneys, Gonzales couldn't defend them, repeatedly victimized by his own carelessness with language and facts. His explanation of how an internal administration fight went down concerning the legality of a National Security Agency surveillance program was better, but still fuzzy enough for congressional Democrats to smear him as a perjurer.