White House officials, who are understandably battle-weary, show an admirable resolve in their willingness to fight for the confirmation of a new attorney general. Anyone nominated to succeed Alberto Gonzales will face contentious hearings aimed at winning concessions on the multiple disputes between the administration and Senate Democrats. An attempt will be made to portray even the most accomplished nominee as an alarming threat to the rule of law. It’s a fight worth having, especially if it’s waged on behalf of a nominee singularly well qualified to handle both the ordeal and the office. Former Solicitor General Ted Olson would be the strongest possible attorney-general nominee.
(Full disclosure: Ted Olson, whom I haven’t talked to about the nomination, is a friend of mine whose qualifications speak for themselves.)
Olson’s government service has been devoted to the Department of Justice, where he served during the Reagan administration and (as solicitor general) in the first George W. Bush administration. He is extremely well regarded by Justice’s demoralized employees, who could be expected to welcome the nomination of a legal superstar to head their troubled department. The Democrats were able to turn the benign replacement of a handful of U.S. attorneys into a massive but phony “scandal” in large measure because DOJ was staffed with well-intentioned officials whose experience was no match for their responsibilities. The second half of a second term typically experiences this sort of lack of experience in government agencies — but Ted Olson has so many talented colleagues, past and present, who would relish the opportunity to work with him that he could be expected to assemble an “A” team for DOJ.
The threats we face demand the best we have. Last Thursday, the director of the CIA, General Michael Hayden, said, “Our analysts assess with high confidence that al Qaeda’s central leadership is planning high-impact plots against the American homeland . . . focusing on targets that would produce mass casualties, dramatic destruction, and significant economic aftershocks.” As one of DOJ’s most senior officials, Ted Olson handled unprecedented law-enforcement demands following 9/11. He has no learning curve in mastering the challenges the department faces. In congressional hearings, the administration’s aggressive antiterrorism efforts would be ably defended by the most able advocate of his generation.
Olson left DOJ in 2004 with his formidable reputation further enhanced. He skillfully served as solicitor general with unquestionable integrity and without a whiff of partisanship. He is widely admired by his peers in the legal community and Senate Democrats would search in vain for a credible legal critic. He is also well known well beyond Washington and conservatives would cheer his nomination.
As an attorney routinely handling his clients’ cases before the Supreme Court, Olson practices law at the pinnacle of his profession. If he accepted the nomination to be attorney general, he wouldn’t have an eye on his next job. His only agenda would be to serve the law and the Department of Justice, which is exactly what President Bush is looking for in a nominee.
Finally, the nomination of Ted Olson would be a disappointment to the president’s critics who fervently hope that over the next few months, the administration will resemble an operation facing bankruptcy, steadily losing its assets and edge. Ted Olson as attorney general says: It ain’t over.
— Kate O’Beirne is National Review’s Washington editor.