Friend of Bush is a bit too chummy with identity politics to merit spot on Supreme Court

Posted: Jul 13, 2005 12:00 AM

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who is supposed to help pick a replacement for retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, says he's "not a candidate" for the job. I don't believe him, and hardly anyone else in Washington does either. There's precedent for such doubt. As you may recall, Dick Cheney wasn't a candidate for the job of vice president, either, when he ran George W. Bush's search committee to find a running mate in 2000.

But that sort of subterfuge I can handle. What I can't handle - and I think I speak for a lot of my friends on the right - is the deceit that Gonzales would make a great Supreme Court justice simply because he's good friends with President Bush. Last week Bush mounted a shockingly personal defense of Gonzales, in effect whining that he didn't like the "attacks" on his friend. He sent out White House spinners to make the case for Gonzales as well. (Full disclosure: My wife works for Gonzales, and - duh - I do not speak for her).

There are a number of problems here.

First, and most important, friendship is not a qualification for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. Period. For a while, when they were working on education policy together, Bush referred to Sen. Edward Kennedy as his great friend. Surely, such encomiums, nice as they were, didn't make Teddy one fraction of a scintilla more qualified to be on the Supreme Court. Either you're a good pick or you're not, and personalities should have nothing to do with it. Oliver Wendell Holmes was a real jerk. But he was a great justice.

Second, President Bush says that he values loyalty and that this is why he's defending Gonzales personally. Bully for him. But the "attacks" on Gonzales have not been personal for the most part. They've been measured and respectful. Nonetheless, Bush's previous - and very loyal - AG, John Ashcroft, was attacked constantly and repeatedly in profoundly personal terms. And Bush never rose to defend Ashcroft. Indeed, the White House brilliantly used Ashcroft in a good-cop bad-cop routine for the entire first term. If I may mangle a metaphor beyond all recognition, Ashcroft was a Medusa's head which Bush could pull out of his bag to petrify the opposition. Or more accurately, to make the opposition go batty in its hysterical Ashcroft phobia.

Of course, Bush and Ashcroft are not close personal friends. But that's sort of the point. Ashcroft would make a far better appointment to the court than Gonzales - but, again, they're not buddies (and the entire Democratic side of the aisle would spontaneously combust if Bush nominated Ashcroft).

It's almost never discussed, but friendship can be one of the most corrupting influences in politics, and in life in general. For example, relatively few people would accept a bribe to hire my nephew. But most people would at least consider hiring the nephew of their best friend, if asked.

Most of the coverage of the right's opposition to Gonzales has centered on abortion and Gonzales' allegedly pro-choice views. That's obviously part of it. But that's merely one tree in a forest. The more comprehensive problem with Gonzales is that he's a beneficiary of what we could call the Friends and Hispanics network. This isn't to say that he's not bright and capable. But he owes the bulk of his public career to two things: George W. Bush and his impressive personal story as a child of poor Mexican immigrants. There's nothing terrible about either of those things, but there's every reason to believe that Gonzales has internalized the logic of affirmative action. As White House counsel, it's been widely reported, he was one of the chief voices arguing for a softer approach to affirmative action.

Gonzales was perfectly qualified for the AG job, but that didn't stop the White House from offering him up in the spirit of identity politics. The media gladly took the bait. George Stephanopoulos suggested that the mere fact Gonzales was a Hispanic would constitute a "change in tone" from Ashcroft. It's amazing what that Latin blood can do, it seems.

Shortly after he was confirmed, he told the Houston Chronicle that his family history would inform how he handles immigration issues. Imagine, if John Ashcroft had said his family history - his father and grandfather were Baptist ministers - was going to influence his policies.

Since he's been attorney general, Gonzales seems almost as interested in speaking to Hispanic groups as he is in speaking to law-enforcement organizations. And here I thought this kind of identity-politics outreach was the reason we had a HUD secretary. Worse, it seems Gonzales buys into this way of thinking. That's tolerable for an AG, it's inexcusable in a Supreme Court justice. And not just because of what it says about Gonzales' views on race - it also suggests he's simpatico with the liberal worldview.

If Bush wants to appoint a Hispanic, there are some out there (Judge Emilio Garza, for one) who have all the necessary qualifications, save one: He's not buddies with president.