President Bush nominated White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales as attorney general yesterday, choosing his top lawyer and longtime friend to guide the war on terrorism and lead the federal government's largest law enforcement agency.
Confirmation by the Senate, considered likely, would make Gonzales, 49, the first Hispanic attorney general in U.S. history and place the Justice Department in the hands of a loyal Bush confidant who helped craft some of the administration's most controversial anti-terrorism strategies.
The move also means that departing Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, a darling of the conservative movement, would be replaced with a figure viewed with some suspicion by the Republican right. By choosing loyalty over ideology in the first major personnel decision after his reelection, Bush signaled a desire for calmer and quieter times at Justice, officials said.
"He always gives me his frank opinion," Bush said in announcing Gonzales's nomination. "He is a calm and steady voice in times of crisis. He has an unwavering principle of respect for the law."
Gonzales said the post of attorney general requires "a special level of trust and integrity."
"The American people expect and deserve a Department of Justice guided by the rule of law, and there should be no question regarding the department's commitment to justice for every American," he said. "On this principle there can be no compromise."
Democrats and Republicans alike predicted a relatively easy confirmation for Gonzales, who came to Washington after serving as a Bush aide and as a state Supreme Court justice in Texas. Last week's elections gave Republicans a 55-to-44-seat Senate edge in the next Congress, which convenes in January.
Democrats see Gonzales, the son of migrant farm workers, as relatively moderate. And Republican conservatives -- while uncomfortable with Gonzales because of previous decisions related to abortion and other social issues -- were cheered that his appointment as attorney general would keep him, at least for now, from being nominated to fill a Supreme Court vacancy.
Tom Minnery, vice president for public policy at Colorado-based Focus on the Family, said Gonzales would be a problematic judicial nominee because he does not have "strong pro-life beliefs." But he said his group would support Gonzales's appointment as attorney general.
"Putting someone like that in such an independent role as a federal judge is a problem for us," Minnery said. "But as attorney general, the social issues are not as prominent as the law enforcement issues."
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said it was "encouraging that the president has chosen someone less polarizing."
"We will have to review his record very carefully, but I can tell you already he's a better candidate than John Ashcroft," Schumer said.
Viet D. Dinh, a former senior Justice official under Ashcroft who now teaches law at Georgetown University, said he expects Gonzales to "differ in tone but not in substance" from his predecessor.
"Al Gonzales does not have the strong public profile of John Ashcroft and the attendant political controversy," Dinh said. "I don't think the outside interest groups will have as easy a time trying to marginalize him as a radical or extremist attorney general."