Steve Chapman

In Britain, the opposition party maintains a "shadow Cabinet" of parliamentarians who are responsible for formulating policy for each government department, and the shadow minister may become the actual minister if the party gains power. So citizens have a pretty good idea what to expect when they vote in the Tories or the Labourites.

But on this side of the Atlantic, we can only guess what lies in store. It's like buying real estate online. You may think you can trust the seller, but ultimately it's up to him whether your property sits on a beach or a toxic waste dump.

In the case of the attorney general, the surprises are rarely pleasant ones. Bill Clinton chose Janet Reno, an obscure local prosecutor, only after his first two choices, Kimba Wood and Zoe Baird, went down in flames. Ronald Reagan gave the job to William French Smith, a pal who had been his personal lawyer. Richard Nixon chose his campaign manager, John Mitchell, who became the first attorney general ever to go to prison. John F. Kennedy picked his younger brother.

This last nomination is one of the few that look better now than they did at first. Anticipating criticism, JFK joked about how he would make the announcement: "I'll open the front door of the Georgetown house some morning about 2:00 a.m., look up and down the street, and, if there's no one there, I'll whisper, 'It's Bobby.' "

Given the dismal experience with Gonzales, it's especially important for the next president to choose someone with sterling credentials, a commitment to excellence and independent judgment. That may be what the candidates expect from Bush's attorney general. But when it comes to picking their own, history suggests, they may set the bar slightly lower. If so, we ought to know now.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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