An Unlamented Exit

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

HIS STATEMENT was as brief as it was bland. No mea culpa, no explanation, only the barest of facts. It was, in short, an exit befitting Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales.

In announcing yesterday that he will relinquish his Justice Department post on Sept. 17, Mr. Gonzales is bringing to an end an undistinguished and troubled 2 1/2 years as the nation's top law enforcement officer. Mr. Gonzales is a longtime friend and counselor to President Bush; he was taken by some as a proxy for the president and his most controversial policies, including the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance program. He was undoubtedly badgered at times by opponents more interested in scoring political points than in securing information. But explaining away Mr. Gonzales's travails in this way -- as Mr. Bush did yesterday -- fails to take into account Mr. Gonzales's enormous role in many of the controversies that led to his downfall.

Mr. Gonzales's hands-off approach to his jobs as White House counsel and later attorney general left him unable at times to answer even simple questions about administration policy. His hopelessly bungled appearances on Capitol Hill left the impression of a man who was poorly briefed, who was in way over his head, or both. He so often deflected legitimate questions from congressional overseers with "I can't recall" that one senator earlier this year said during a hearing that he was beginning to worry about the attorney general's memory. And Mr. Gonzales's inept handling of the firing of nine U.S. attorneys fed concerns that he had politicized the department.

But Mr. Gonzales was worse than hapless or forgetful. He embraced the reprehensible memorandum in which the administration endorsed torture as an acceptable tool in interrogations. He was instrumental in the notorious 2004 nighttime visit to the hospital room of then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft. Mr. Gonzales's goal: to convince a feeble Mr. Ashcroft to endorse an administration intelligence program even though the official Mr. Ashcroft designated as acting attorney general had found the program legally unacceptable.

In the end, Mr. Gonzales distinguished himself most as a Bush loyalist, never grasping that as attorney general his fealty to the rule of law had to trump his loyalty to the president. The next attorney general must not only understand the distinction but embrace it without reservation. The nominee should have a track record of intellectual honesty and independence, and an understanding that the attorney general is not the president's lawyer, there to enable the chief executive to achieve whatever goals he desires. The president is entitled to an attorney general who shares his ideology. But the best attorneys general -- Republican and Democrat alike -- have been well versed in the Constitution and the special mission of the Justice Department. When confronted with questionable objectives, they have had the moral fortitude to look the boss in the eye and say no.

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