Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- In Washington's conventional wisdom, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid's opposition killed Theodore B. Olson as President Bush's choice for attorney general. But that is not the whole truth. From the moment Alberto Gonzales resigned on Aug. 27, there was divided advice about Olson inside the White House. Influential senior aides flinched at a difficult confirmation, reflecting a disinclination to confront Democrats -- with consequences for the last year of George W. Bush's presidency.

Before Reid issued his dictate, there was hand-wringing among the president's aides not only about former Solicitor General Olson but other well-qualified prospects who might not meet the Reid test. That launched a three-week search for someone to satisfy Senate Democrats while not antagonizing the conservative Republican base -- no easy task. The best Bush's talent scouts could do was Michael B. Mukasey, a 66-year-old retired federal judge who appears unqualified and ill-equipped for his daunting task of rehabilitating the Justice Department.

The selection of Mike Mukasey instead of Ted Olson prompts worries among loyal Republicans that transcend Justice's problems. The White House first indicated that the president would veto the expensive student loan bill, but it has switched signals. After considering vetoing a congressional ethics bill that does nothing about earmarks -- or at least letting it become law without his signature -- he signed it, albeit without a ceremony. That has spawned speculation over whether Bush really would veto a popular health insurance bill or a catchall appropriation, the latter at the risk of closing down the government. An unpopular president managing an unpopular war, he looks like a lame duck playing out the string.

The White House's short list of successors to Gonzales included Republican lawyers with broad, high-level experience inside the Justice Department: George Terwilliger and Laurence Silberman, both of whom had served as deputy attorney general, and Olson. Terwilliger did not survive the White House selection process, and administration sources said there was doubt Silberman -- currently a U.S. Appeals Court judge for the District of Columbia circuit in senior status -- would accept. That left the highly esteemed Olson.

Robert Novak

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

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