“Even my worst days as attorney general have been better than my father’s best days.”
One doesn’t want to begrudge Alberto Gonzales a brief, self-indulgent moment of mawkishness as he ignominiously departs the public stage. But one of his main problems was that mawkish self-indulgence was often his defining contribution to the public debate.
To the bitter end, Gonzales remained the most self-involved attorney general in modern memory. (Full disclosure: My wife worked for Gonzales and his predecessor.) Gonzales liked to give speeches – even after he left the White House for the Department of Justice – about what a great country this is that it would let a man like him drive through the White House gates. He liked to complain about how hard his job was, and he defined that job first, last and always as being the president’s man. Oh, and he mentioned that he was the grandchild of immigrants, by my rough calculation, 12 trillion times.
Gonzales is no doubt sincere in his ethnic and familial pride and his fondness for President Bush. But it’s hard not to see this stuff as a defense mechanism of a man long carried by a political operation with a weakness for Latino success stories and loyal cronies.
Whenever he took the initiative, he seemed out of his depth. When Gonzales took over as America’s “top cop” in 2005, he insisted that his Justice Department revive the Reno-era emphasis on “the children” as a defining mission of his tenure. Never mind that Republicans had invested a great deal in the (valid) argument that the Clinton Justice Department was too distracted and mushy-minded to recognize the al Qaeda threat. He surely should have gotten the memo that the war on terror was the supreme priority for the administration because he wrote the memo.
Not since James Watt, President Reagan’s ham-handed Interior secretary (he barred the Beach Boys from the National Mall for drawing “an undesirable element”), has there been a major Cabinet secretary more politically tone-deaf.
Which brings us to Gonzales’s resignation.
For months, Bush’s most enduring loyalist has let the Democrats be-bop and scat up one side of the administration and down the other over largely imaginary Justice Department scandals. What did Gonzales know? When did he know it? And what security program was that again? Gonzales was a piñata for Democrats; bash him from any angle and you got a prize.
When seen in the klieg lights of a congressional hearing, Gonzales appeared as sharp as a wooden spoon. And the spoon didn’t exactly turn razor-keen when out of the spotlight either. Earlier this summer, Gonzales agreed to headline a conference focused on law enforcement partnerships with the Muslim community. Another featured speaker? An imam from the Islamic Society of North America, a group that had just been named as an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the Holy Land Foundation terror-promotion trial. The department ultimately “rescheduled” the conference out of existence.
The Republican midterm-election defeat last fall had many authors, but if you talk to congressional Republicans, they’ll tell you that one of the most disastrous and infuriating mistakes the Bush White House made was to circle the wagons around Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, only to cut him loose right after the election. Many Republicans paid dearly for defending Rummy, only to see him split on his own timetable weeks later.
And that was nothing new. Bush prizes loyalty above all else, which is why he tolerated generals with losing records, like Gen. George Casey Jr., for far too long and was willing to reward a bureaucrat like Harriet Miers with a nomination to the Supreme Court. Likewise, Bush tolerated a dysfunctional Justice Department and an incompetent attorney general because he liked “Fredo.”
Privately, Bush’s defenders argued that times have not been propitious for a confirmation battle over a new attorney general, and neither Bush nor Gonzales wanted to be seen as caving to partisan pressure. In other words, better to have an ineffective attorney general dragging down the whole operation than to have a fight over an effective one.
I can’t remember the last time I agreed with John Edwards about anything, but his reaction to Gonzales’ departure was right on the money: “Better late than never.”
But late is far from good. What, exactly, has been gained by having this feckless figurehead running the Justice Department? As with Rumsfeld, the Democrats didn’t really want Gonzales to leave; they wanted to pull on him like a thread so as to further unravel the Bush presidency.
But now all of that is moot because Gonzales has changed his mind and wants to leave after all. “I have no reason to believe it wasn’t fully his decision,” a Justice Department insider told my colleague, Rich Lowry. Well, that’s sweet. By all means, take all the time you need, Mr. Gonzales. After all, it’s all about you.
© 2007 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.