Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- One day after Alberto Gonzales submitted his resignation as attorney general and two days before it was made public, White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten was on the phone Saturday feeling out who might be available as a replacement. That Bolten had a short list in hand indicates that even if George W. Bush had been ready to ride out his presidency with his dear friend at the Justice Department, senior aides were eager to staunch the political bleeding.

It was not surprising that nobody on Bolten's short list resembled Gonzales (thought it would be hard to find anyone so inappropriate for the job). But the caliber of possible selections means President Bush is not content with a placeholder sure of Senate confirmation. It also suggests a seriousness of purpose not evident when Bush transplanted Texas aides to Washington.

The president bemoans Gonzales falling victim to a Democratic lynch mob. But silence prevailed among Republicans in Congress who had to deal with the infuriating attorney general (with the rare of exception of Gonzales's fellow former Texas Supreme Court justice, Sen. John Cornyn). Given the president's track record, these Republicans have feared the worst about his successor.

So, Bolten's short list is a pleasant surprise. It includes former Solicitor General Ted Olson, an accomplished lawyer and resolute conservative. According to administration sources, the list also includes two well-regarded former deputy attorney generals: George Terwilliger, a veteran prestige Washington lawyer, and Laurence Silberman, a longtime judge on the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia now on senior status.

Those choices show that Bush is not taking the very bad advice that he name a non-political academic along the lines of Edward Levi, the University of Chicago president named attorney general by President Gerald Ford. Levi, hardly in the tradition of the office, turned out to be Ford's enemy within. Not every president need select his own brother as John F. Kennedy did, but a friendly face at Justice is needed.

It was just that President Bush went too far in picking a friend who was loyal but incompetent (a complaint never lodged against Bobby Kennedy). All of Gonzales's senior political positions in Texas -- secretary of state, governor's legal counsel and Supreme Court justice -- were thanks to Bush's patronage. As president, Bush was less interested in quality than loyalty, as he transported Texas aides to Washington.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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