Gonzales-Bush Loyalty a Two-Way Street

By Michael A. Fletcher and R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 27, 2007; 1:02 PM

After arriving in Washington with President Bush in 2001, Alberto Gonzales stood out for his unflappable nature and intense loyalty to the president. With what some called his willingness to interpret the law to fit his boss's priorities and his long political ties with Bush, Gonzales was among the president's closest confidants.

It is for good reason that Bush sometimes referred to Gonzales as " mi abogado" and kept him close by. In 1996, he helped then-Texas Gov. Bush avoid jury duty where he might have been forced to reveal a 20-year-old charge of driving while intoxicated, which later surfaced anyway. Dozens of Gonzales memos to Bush supported the governor's desire to implement the death penalty in Texas.

And as White House counsel and later as attorney general, Gonzales endorsed the creation of the controversial legal framework that guided the administration's war on terror, strongly backed by Vice President Cheney and legal conservatives but opposed by many scholars and partly overturned by the courts.

If Gonzales, who resigned as attorney general Monday, served Bush well over the years, the reverse is also true. Through Bush's sponsorship, Gonzales ascended to the top of the Texas legal establishment before becoming what some scholars call one of the most influential Hispanic officials in the history of United States government. Through more than six years in Washington, Gonzales was unable to expand his base of support beyond the president and his inner circle, and finally appeared to succumb to blunt attacks from Republican as well as Democratic lawmakers over his mishandling of the firings of nine U.S. attorneys.

"He had very much a one-to-one relationship with the president," said David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter. "That is where he started and that is where he finished."

In the end, Gonzales was a man without a constituency outside of the White House. At a Senate hearing on April 19, he endured withering criticism over his professed inability to recall key events in the attorney firings, including details of a meeting on the topic with President Bush and Karl Rove. As the controversy swirled over a period of several months, conservative figures questioned both his legal competence and his ability to manage the sprawling Justice Department.

"We have never seen evidence that he has a fine legal mind, good judgment, or managerial ability," read an editorial in the conservative National Review in late March. "Nor has his conduct at any stage of this controversy gained our confidence."

The controversy over the prosecutor firings expanded in recent months to encompass other issues, all with a focus on whether lawmakers considered Gonzales trustworthy or competent to run the Justice Department.

In one key example, Gonzales repeatedly testified that the administration's warrantless surveillance program had caused no serious disagreement among Justice Department officials. But that claim was contradicted by testimony from former deputy attorney general James B. Comey and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III.

Both described how Gonzales, then the White House counsel, visited former Attorney General John D. Ashcroft in the hospital in March 2004 after Justice lawyers had refused to reauthorize parts of the program to be illegal. Gonzales said Ashcroft was "lucid" during the visit, while Mueller described him as "feeble" and "barely articulate."

The mounting evidence prompted Gonzales to clarify his remarks about the program earlier this month.

These and other episodes led several congressional Democrats to call for perjury investigations of Gonzales. During a particularly hostile Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on July 24, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) told Gonzales bluntly: "I don't trust you."

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