In the End, Realities Trumped Loyalty

By Dan Balz and Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Few attributes are more highly prized in President Bush's White House than loyalty -- and few have exacted a higher toll on the president and his political standing. Yesterday's resignation announcement by Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales underscored once again the damage that can be done when loyalty becomes paramount in presidential decision-making.

Rarely has a Cabinet-level resignation been so anticipated, coming long after Gonzales's credibility had been irreparably undermined by controversy. After he seemingly could do no more harm to the administration, Bush's friend and longtime confidant finally called it quits.

Yet the resignation was almost as surprising as it was long expected. Bush repeatedly expressed confidence in his embattled attorney general, and Gonzales had stubbornly refused to yield to the political reality that his presence at the Justice Department meant continued conflict with Democrats and some Republicans in Congress as well as further investigations into the inner workings of the administration.

"Getting him out of there is about four months or five months late," said one Republican strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid appraisal of the situation. "It reemphasizes that this thing is broken."

If Gonzales's were the only case of loyalty overwhelming political hardheadedness in the Bush administration, there might be little more to his resignation than the fall from grace of a public official whose inspirational life story had almost a storybook quality to it. Gonzales rose from a childhood of poverty to a succession of distinguished appointments, culminating in his confirmation as the first Hispanic attorney general in the nation's history.

But his case is not unique -- and that is what has confounded Bush's allies. The same pattern occurred with former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Long before Rumsfeld tendered his resignation on the eve of the 2006 elections, many of Bush's advisers had concluded that he should go. But the president refused to give satisfaction to the retired generals and Democratic officials publicly calling for his dismissal.

So, too, with Bush's unexpected decision to nominate then-White House counsel Harriet E. Miers to the Supreme Court in the fall of 2005. Her selection produced a firestorm on the right, as conservatives and others accused the president of cronyism and challenged Miers's credentials to sit on the highest court in the land.

Like Gonzales, Miers eventually faced reality. She asked that her name be withdrawn from consideration -- but only after an extraordinary month that further deflated the president's political standing at a time when he was on the defensive because of the slow White House response to Hurricane Katrina.

"It's clear that it has hurt Bush to have hung on to somebody who by all accounts was clearly failing in his job," said Kenneth Adelman, a Reagan administration official who suggested that Bush has had a misplaced sense of loyalty to such advisers as Rumsfeld and Gonzales.

"You're loyal to the mission. You're loyal to performance. You're loyal to the country," Adelman said. "You should always be nice to people, but there are more important things than being nice to your friends. You have to keep your eye on the mission and the performance in completing the mission."

Fred Greenstein, a Princeton University scholar of the presidency, said he believes that Bush may be more calculating than his critics suggest, noting that he was one of the key figures in helping push Chief of Staff John H. Sununu out of his father's administration. "His DNA has been to stick by his people," Greenstein said. "Then he moves or he bends and denies that he has done that."

Other Bush associates and former administration officials said the president has been heavily influenced by what he saw as personnel disarray during his father's term -- and feels it is important to stick by his people. "He has just seen good people lynched politically," said Mark McKinnon, the president's longtime media adviser. "He was a close observer of his father's administration and previous administrations."

Bush's comments yesterday seemed to reinforce that view. Saying he had reluctantly accepted his attorney general's resignation, he noted pointedly: "His good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons."

Gonzales will leave a trail of debris. His image has been badly tarnished. His refusal to resign sooner further soured the already acidic relations between Congress and the White House. His Justice Department, in the words of Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), became dysfunctional.

It may be too late to wonder how much of this could have been avoided, but it is clear when it started. Gonzales was promoted from White House counsel to attorney general at a moment when Bush believed he had limitless political capital, in the weeks after his reelection victory, when two other White House advisers -- Condoleezza Rice and Margaret Spellings -- were also given new jobs leading the State and Education departments.

Bush knew he could trust Gonzales with one of the most sensitive posts in any administration. But in doing so, the president left himself vulnerable to charges that he was politicizing the Justice Department -- and as controversies mounted, Gonzales proved incapable of insulating himself or his department from those charges.

The firings of nine U.S. attorneys and the Democratic takeover of Congress combined to provide the ingredients for Gonzales's undoing. Under fire, the attorney general was not able to offer explanations that satisfied lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

The revelation of Gonzales's role as White House counsel in trying to pressure an ailing John D. Ashcroft to sign off from his hospital bed on aspects of a controversial warrantless surveillance program -- and his tortured explanation of those events -- further undermined his standing.

The resignation may have been meant to quell the partisan warfare that has raged for months, but early reactions suggested that it may not be a political circuit breaker.

The search for Gonzales's replacement begins with a standoff between congressional Democrats' demands for a nonpartisan, non-controversial nominee and Bush's determination to not allow Democrats to become the de facto personnel directors for his administration.

The path of least resistance for the president would be to find someone with dependable Republican credentials who can win confirmation with Democratic support. The confirmation process will demonstrate the extent to which both sides can move beyond the Gonzales controversy, but in the current environment, prospects for a compromise seem uncertain at best.

What is not in doubt is the president's fierce commitment to those he selects to serve him.

Abramowitz reported from Bellevue, Wash.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company