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Bush's Immovable Man Moves On

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. (By Alex Wong -- Getty Images)

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By Ruth Marcus
Tuesday, August 28, 2007

By the time the end came, I had begun to think of Alberto Gonzales as Bartleby the Attorney General.

Everyone -- well, nearly everyone -- wanted him to go, but he preferred not to. Like the maddening scrivener of Melville's short story who would not leave his job, Gonzales was possessed of a "wonderful mildness." Senators of both parties might rage at his transparent evasions, but "not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him." He was passive in the face of partisan and even bipartisan aggression.

"It was truly a beautiful thought to have assumed Bartleby's departure; but, after all, that assumption was simply my own, and none of Bartleby's," Melville's narrator observed. "The great point was, not whether I had assumed that he would quit me, but whether he would prefer so to do."

Did Gonzales finally decide he preferred to leave, or was it decided for him? Based on Gonzales's previous insistence on staying, I'd guess he was pushed, in one of those Washington, no-fingerprints ways.

During the attorney general's last, disastrous appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee a month ago, Wisconsin Democrat Herb Kohl asked the question that was on the mind of anyone watching, and wincing, at Gonzales's pummeling: "What keeps you in the job, Mr. Attorney General?"

"Ultimately I have to decide whether or not it's better for me to leave or just stay and try to fix the problems," Gonzales replied. "I've decided to stay and fix the problems."

This captured precisely why Gonzales needed to go. The notion that Gonzales could "fix the problems" ignored the fact that these were problems of his own creation -- in many ways, he was the problem. Gonzales tended to talk about himself as if he were having an out-of-body experience, saying, for example, about the firing of U.S. attorneys: "I am not aware that it certainly was in my mind a problem or basis to accept the recommendation that they be asked to leave."

Gonzales proved that he could, at least for a time, defy the laws of political gravity. By the end, members of his own party -- privately, for certain, and some publicly -- had had enough of his eternal-sunshine-of-the-spotless-mind memory and his hair-splitting approach to the truth. Gonzales stayed long enough to drain his departure of nearly all its political benefit. His resignation made Donald Rumsfeld's exit look precipitous.

There is one obvious explanation for Gonzales's longevity: President Bush. Asked about his attorney general at a news conference this month, Bush bristled. "Implicit in your questions is that Al Gonzales did something wrong. I haven't seen Congress say he's done anything wrong," he said.

Yesterday, Bush complained of "months of unfair treatment that has created a harmful distraction at the Justice Department." He added: "It's sad that we live in a time when a talented and honorable person like Alberto Gonzales is impeding from doing important work because his good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons."

No doubt, Democrats have delighted in seizing on and magnifying Gonzales's failings. But Gonzales himself has acknowledged the "problems" at his department and his own "missteps" and misstatements. He apologized to the fired prosecutors "for allowing this matter to become an unfortunate and undignified public spectacle" and said that he "should have done more personally to ensure that the review process was more rigorous, and that each U.S. attorney was informed of this decision in a more personal and respectful way."

It was Gonzales's inexperienced senior counsel, Monica Goodling, who admitted that she "crossed the line," taking political affiliations into account in hiring career prosecutors; she described how the attorney general's efforts to recite his recollection of the firings, at a time when it was clear the matter would be investigated, made her "uncomfortable." It was Gonzales's inexperienced chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, who said the attorney general's statements that he was not involved in any discussions about the firings were inaccurate.

It was the president's own former deputy attorney general, James Comey, who offered a devastating account of Gonzales's visit to John Ashcroft's hospital room and Bush's FBI director, Robert Mueller, who backed up Comey's account.

It was the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Arlen Specter (Pa.), who told Gonzales last month, "I do not find your testimony credible, candidly." It was Adam Putnam (Fla.), head of the House Republican Conference, who called on Gonzales to resign, saying his "credibility is so severely damaged . . . that he is no longer able to advance the president's programs before Congress."

In short, it was hardly a vast left-wing conspiracy that did in the attorney general.

Gonzales may have been Bartleby. To the end, though, Bush was Bartleby's enabler.

marcusr@washpost.com


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