When James Buckley ran for the United States Senate in New York in 1970, his campaign billboards asked a question: "Isn't it time we had a senator?" The latest controversy surrounding the Justice Department raises a question of its own: "Isn't it time we had an attorney general?" Alberto Gonzales started out in Washington as the president's man, and he has done nothing to endanger his favored status. But that leaves the rest of us sorely unrepresented.
The uproar over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys may be a case where Gonzales actually had sound reasons, rather than unsavory political motives, for doing what he did. Someone who has consistently been a pliable administration functionary, though, can hardly expect the benefit of the doubt when scandal erupts. That makes this a good time to consider what sort of person ought to replace Gonzales in the likely event that he will soon return to private life.
The short answer is: someone very different. This attorney general owes almost everything to George W. Bush -- who brought him on as his legal adviser when he was governor of Texas, appointed him to the state supreme court, gave him the job of White House counsel and installed him at Justice. It's about as easy to imagine Gonzales standing up to the president as it is to picture Mickey Mouse biting Walt Disney.
Whatever else he has done in Washington, he has conspicuously failed to earn a reputation for fearless and independent judgment. So everything that has come out about the removal of the prosecutors has been interpreted in the most incriminating fashion.
Some of it is hard to interpret any other way. The attorney general is entitled to get rid of mediocre prosecutors. Yet of the seven who got the gate in December, two had just been given high grades by Kyle Sampson, then Gonzales' chief of staff. One of those rated unsatisfactory was Bud Cummins of Arkansas, who the department now admits was removed only to make room for a former aide to Karl Rove. And now we also know that the White House, which had denied any role in the firings, was involved from the start.What bodes particularly ill for the attorney general is that even conservative Republicans in Congress are furious. New Hampshire Sen. John Sununu pronounced the administration's handling of this matter "unacceptable." Nevada Sen. John Ensign said he was "very angry" about the dismissal of the prosecutor in his state. Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma said the firing of the U.S. attorneys amounted to "idiocy."
When you start getting reviews like that from people in your own party, you're entering the land of the living dead, which was so recently occupied and then vacated by Donald Rumsfeld. A Cabinet official who becomes a gross liability may find that even Bush's loyalty has limits.
But getting rid of Gonzales will be nothing to applaud if Bush replaces him with another friend or partisan player carrying out a White House agenda. What is needed is the lawyer equivalent of Defense Secretary Robert Gates -- a distinguished figure with unblemished integrity, a titanium backbone and an excess of independence and competence.
An even better model is Edward Levi, who was charged with restoring confidence in the Justice Department in the aftermath of Watergate. He was a respected law professor and president of the University of Chicago, not a buddy of President Gerald Ford, and he carried out his mission impeccably. As Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said later, Levi's crucial asset was "a level of integrity such as there could never be any doubt about his honesty, forthrightness or truthfulness." That would be a change, wouldn't it?
There may be other people capable of pulling the Justice Department out of its slough of despond. But Alberto Gonzales is not one of them.
***Note to readers: In my last column, which dealt with the subpoenaing of reporters by special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald in the Lewis Libby case, I noted that Washington and Lee University journalism professor Edward Wasserman had described the episode as "a calamity." Prof. Wasserman writes to say he was referring only to the failure of reporters to keep their promises of confidentiality to their sources, not to Fitzgerald's decisions.