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White House Briefing: Dan Froomkin

Deciding What's Salient About Gonzales

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, November 11, 2004; 10:59 AM

What's the most important thing about White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales, who President Bush nominated yesterday to replace Attorney General John D. Ashcroft?

That he would be the first Hispanic attorney general?

That he has been a longtime and deeply loyal friend to the president?

That he championed legal arguments that some critics say laid the groundwork for the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison?

Clearly, all three are important. The first is neat. The second is telling. The third is horrifying, if true. All three are mentioned in pretty much all of today's major media coverage.

But what, as we say in the newspaper business, is the lead?

I parsed the first descriptive phrases of the main news stories about Gonzales by several major media organizations. Here's what they went with:

• Washington Post: Longtime friend.

• New York Times: Longtime political loyalist.

• Los Angeles Times: Loyal friend; aggressive advocate for strengthening Bush's powers as a wartime commander.

• USA Today: Bush confidant, first Hispanic.

• Wall Street Journal: Son of Mexican immigrants; close, longtime adviser to Bush.

• Chicago Tribune: Friend; first Hispanic.

• Knight Ridder: First Hispanic; longtime friend.

• CBS Evening News: Loyal longtime ally; under fire for legal arguments in war on terror.

• NBC Nightly News: Mexican American; friend.

• ABC World News Tonight: Friend; anything but a country-club Republican.

• Associated Press: Helped shape controversial legal strategy in the war on terror; first Hispanic.

• Reuters: Son of migrant workers; Bush confidant; shaper of legal opinions about prisoner treatment.

Is the whole "torture memo" issue just too complicated to get at in the lead of a story, or is it a relative non-issue? We'll have to wait until the confirmation hearings to find out.

Here's the text of the remarks by Bush and Gonzales yesterday. Here's the video.

Here's the roster of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Here's the Jan. 25, 2002, memo from Gonzales to Bush on prisoner treatment, and a linked summary of the progression of memos and decisions, from lawofwar.org.

The Coverage

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "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. . . .

"Nonetheless, some Democrats said Gonzales will face sharp questioning about his role in crafting administration anti-terrorism policies that have been overturned or scaled back by the courts."

As Eggen explains, that includes Gonzales's argument that the war on terrorism made the Geneva Conventions' limitations on treatment of enemy prisoners obsolete, his role in another memo advising that torturing alleged al Qaeda terrorists in captivity abroad may be justified and his public defense of detaining alleged enemy combatants without access to lawyers or courts.

Another point raised by Eggen: "Some career prosecutors at the Justice Department were also alarmed by Bush's choice of Gonzales, said one administration official, given the department's role in politically sensitive investigations involving the White House. These include the inquiry into the disclosure of a CIA operative's name and an escalating investigation of Halliburton Co., the energy services company formerly run by the vice president."

David E. Sanger and Eric Lichtblau write in the New York Times: "The nomination of Mr. Gonzales would also put one of his most trusted aides in a post where past presidents have wanted to have a confidant, as well as someone who can help defend the White House, much as John F. Kennedy chose his brother Robert, or Ronald Reagan chose Edwin Meese III."

Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Gonzales was also an architect of the system of military tribunals that the Defense Department is using in Cuba to prosecute suspected terrorists. Critics complained that detainees were being denied their basic rights under the Geneva Convention. The survival of the military tribunals was cast in doubt this week in a ruling by a federal judge. . . .

"Nonetheless, compared with Ashcroft, who became a polarizing figure in part because of his combative and often highly public defense of the administration's war on terrorism, Bush's choice for his new attorney general is mild-mannered and relatively noncontroversial."

Andrew Zajac writes in the Chicago Tribune: "Although less publicly wedded to conservative social issues, Gonzales is similar to Ashcroft in his staunch support for an unfettered federal hand in pursuing terrorists and in defending the need for governmental secrecy.

"At the beginning of his White House tenure, Gonzales wrote an executive order making it easier to keep presidential papers sealed and repeatedly cited executive privilege to keep secret the makeup and activities of an industry task force convened by Vice President Dick Cheney to help set energy policy."

Zajac writes that when Gonzales was chief counsel to then-Gov. Bush, his duties included keeping Bush informed of petitions for clemency from condemned prisoners.

"According to the Atlantic Monthly, Gonzales handled 57 such petitions but sometimes provided Bush with only cursory reviews of the cases, leaving out crucial information such as ineffective counsel and evidence of innocence."

Tom Brune writes in Newsday that "the choice of Gonzales for that key cabinet job gives Democrats a new opportunity to scrutinize and demand accountability on some of the most controversial issues involved in the war on terrorism, said liberal groups and even some allies of departing Attorney General John Ashcroft.

"Gonzales took a harder line than even Ashcroft on the issues of enemy combatants and military commissions, despite the public perception of Ashcroft, Justice insiders say."

Roland Watson writes in the London Times: "President Bush named as his new Attorney-General yesterday the man whose legal opinion critics blame for opening the door to the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. . . .

"But his nomination places Mr Bush on collision course with the Senate, which must approve Mr Gonzales' appointment, and risks re-opening many of the most controversial episodes of the first Bush term, including the establishment of the Guantanamo Bay detainee camp."

John Cochran on ABC'S World News Tonight shows Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, saying: "I don't see Judge Gonzales as being a controversial nomination -- at least not a lightning rod type."

Gonzales Profiles

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "In background and temperament, Alberto R. Gonzales, President Bush's choice to be attorney general, could hardly be more different from John D. Ashcroft."

Gonzales is "soft-spoken, nondogmatic and viewed with suspicion by conservatives. . . .

"As White House counsel in Bush's first term, Gonzales was known less for ideology than for loyalty to Bush. Indeed, he could be politically tone-deaf in his zeal to protect the authority of his boss in squabbles with Congress. "

David G. Savage and Edwin Chen write in the Los Angeles Times: "There are two oft-heard Texas stories about Alberto R. Gonzales, whom President Bush introduced Wednesday as his choice for attorney general.

"One is inspirational, about the son of migrant workers who used education and determination to rise from near poverty to become counsel to the governor of Texas and then to the president of the United States.

"The other is more practical, about the lawyer-as-fixer who cleverly shielded his boss from legal and political trouble over an arrest for drunk driving. . . .

"Unlike Ashcroft, Gonzales is a trusted friend of the president who can be counted on to put the interests of the White House first."

David Johnston and Richard W. Stevenson write in the New York Times: "He is viewed with some suspicion by Democrats, who promised on Wednesday to question him aggressively about his role in setting administration policy on detaining and questioning people captured in the effort to combat terrorism. And he is seen as unreliable by many conservatives, who said he has not been sufficiently hard line on the issues of most concern to them, including abortion and affirmative action."

Kevin Johnson writes in USA Today that Gonzales "has been the administration's point man in defending Bush's efforts to keep more government information secret, and he had a leading role in crafting a list of conservative federal court nominees that led to a series of nasty clashes with Senate Democrats.

"Gonzales became a symbol for loyalty and discretion in an administration that values those qualities more than almost anything."

Robert Elder Jr. writes in the Austin American-Statesman: "The president's nomination marks the fifth time in a decade that Bush has turned to Gonzales, a former partner in Houston law firm Vinson & Elkins. Gonzales, 49, served as then-Gov. Bush's general counsel and as Texas secretary of state, a Texas Supreme Court justice and, since 2001, President Bush's White House counsel.

"Gonzales' legal handiwork has followed the arc of Bush's career."

Helen Kennedy writes in the New York Daily News: "Alberto Gonzales, or 'the Judge,' as Bush calls him, has a lot going for him - including smarts, drive and a close friendship with Bush.

"'I love him dearly,' Bush said of the amiable, mild-mannered lawyer in 2001."

Editorial Roundup

Washington Post: "Mr. Gonzales, one of the president's most loyal lieutenants here as he was in Austin, has been an architect of harmful policies related to the prisoner abuse scandal and the war on terrorism more generally. . . . [T]he Senate should carefully examine Mr. Gonzales's role in the decisions that helped lead to the Abu Ghraib scandal."

New York Times: "Mr. Gonzales has a long record of giving Mr. Bush bad legal advice. . . . The Justice Department also urgently needs to review the administration's policies on detainees and prisoners of war in Guantánamo Bay, Afghanistan and Iraq. Given Mr. Gonzales's history on this subject, we hope that he uses his Senate confirmation hearings to promise to bring the government into compliance with international law, the Geneva Conventions and rulings by federal judges, including the Supreme Court."

Los Angeles Times: "[T]he role he played in orchestrating the war on terror from the White House counsel's office makes him a disastrous choice to lead the Justice Department. . . . Gonzales has also fostered the administration's culture of secrecy."

Wall Street Journal: "The message would seem to be policy continuity, with a kinder, gentler public face. . . . Mr. Gonzales has many things going for him»But his job will nonetheless be to build on the Ashcroft legacy."

Chicago Tribune: "Maybe Gonzales, who would be the first Hispanic attorney general, is the person to change the climate at the Justice Department. . . . If he is confirmed by the Senate -- let's hear the case -- then it will be his task to restore the trust and prestige of an office that his predecessor did so much to injure."

With an 'S' Please

Amy Schatz of the Austin American-Statesman noted in 2002 the press's proclivity to misspell Gonzales's name.

"For the record, it ends with an 's,' not a 'z,'" she wrote.

And, for the record, the problem continues to this day. Guilty parties in the last week include the New York Daily News, the Miami Herald, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and USA Today.

Who Will Replace Him?

Eggen writes in The Post: "Among the most likely candidates for Gonzales's current job is White House staff secretary Brett Kavanaugh, a lawyer who has been waiting nearly 16 months for confirmation to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, officials said.

"Kavanaugh was a top lawyer in two cases that dogged the Clinton White House, working as a deputy to independent counsel Kenneth Starr in the long-running Whitewater investigation and the 1998 impeachment case."

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "Bush advisers said two people would be naturals to succeed Gonzales. One is White House staff secretary Brett Kavanaugh, a lawyer who has been waiting nearly 16 months for confirmation on the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

"Harriet Miers, a deputy chief of staff who was once Bush's personal lawyer, would be another candidate, one Bush adviser said."

The Post-Arafat World

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "The death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat gives the Bush administration a rare diplomatic opening in the stalled Middle East peace process, though the extent and reach of the U.S. involvement is still to be determined, administration officials said.

"One administration official said last night President Bush has come to understand that much of the opportunity depends on how the United States responds in the first days and weeks after Arafat's death. A battle between radical and moderate elements within Palestinian society appears certain to emerge, and direct U.S. involvement might ensure that moderate leadership takes hold in the Palestinian Authority, he said.

"Administration officials also believe a renewed effort at Middle East peacemaking may help mend frayed relationships with European allies, though some differences have already emerged. British Prime Minister Tony Blair is to arrive today in Washington for talks with Bush, and he has said he plans to stress 'the importance of the Middle East peace process.'"

Here's the text of Bush's statement on Arafat's death.

On Prime Minister Tony Blair's visit today, Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: "Blair has become more than a friend to Bush, with the two leaders conversing by telephone weekly. Blair, risking his own prospects for a third term next year, has been Bush's strongest ally on Iraq, maintaining as Bush has that the war is a matter of confronting world terrorism.

"Now Bush's best friend at war comes calling with an agenda of his own: reviving an elusive initiative for peace in the Middle East. The prime minister will arrive in Washington on Thursday evening for a meeting Friday morning with Bush on an agenda spanning war and peace."

Mandate Watch

Brian Faler writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush won more than 59 million votes last week -- more than any other presidential candidate in history and enough, his supporters have said, to claim a mandate. But other comparisons between this year's election results and those of previous contests suggest his win was somewhat less decisive.

"Bush's unofficial three-percentage-point margin of victory, for example, was the fifth smallest since 1920."

Liberal Washington Monthly blogger Kevin Drum disputes the mandate claim but says even if Bush has one, a mandate "is at least supposed to be something that the victor campaigned on." The three top second-term Bush priorities you hear the most about these days -- Social Security privatization, rewriting the tax code and drilling for oil in ANWR -- were barely mentioned during the campaign.

Howard Kurtz writes on washingtonpost.com that "Democrats are perfectly entitled to oppose any Bush proposal that he didn't spend much time explaining."

Halliburton Watch

Robert O'Harrow Jr. writes in The Washington Post: "Citing newly disclosed State Department documents, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) called yesterday for further congressional hearings on Halliburton Co.'s contracts in Kuwait and Iraq."

Here is Waxman's letter to committee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.).

Troop Levels

Reuters reports: "President George W. Bush said on Wednesday that he saw no need right now to bolster U.S. troop levels in Iraq and that the U.S.-led offensive in Falluja was going well."

Here is the text of Bush's remarks after his meeting with NATO Secretary General de Hoop Scheffer.

Not Quite Right

During those same remarks, notes the Los Angeles Times, Bush displayed a misunderstanding of just what Iraqis will be voting on in their upcoming elections.

"'Well, I'm confident when people realize that there's a chance to vote on a president, they will participate,' President Bush said Wednesday when asked whether the participation of Sunni Muslims would be necessary to make the elections free and fair. . . .

"In fact, Iraqis will not choose their president directly. They will be voting to choose a National Assembly of 275 members, which will elect from its members a president and two deputies and write a constitution."

Today's Calendar

The Associated Press reports: "Bush will attend a private White House reception for veterans Thursday morning. The reception will to be followed by an annual wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns and remarks at the memorial amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery. . . .

"He's also meeting with his closest Iraq War ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Blair was to arrive late Thursday to begin two days of talks that also are expected to focus on Afghanistan and Mideast peace efforts."

Late Night Humor

From the Daily Show With Jon Stewart:

"We begin tonight with a shakeup in the cabinet. After serving President Bush for four glorious, terror-filled years, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced his resignation yesterday with a statement reading in part, 'the objective of securing the safety of Americans from crime and terror has been achieved.'

"OK! Done, and done. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to cure cancer. Call you after turkey day.

"The resignation came in the form of a five-page letter Ashcroft handwrote so that, quote, 'its confidentiality could be maintained.' So apparently America is safe other than the computers at the Justice Department. But really, how important are those intelligence-wise?"


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