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Small Shoes at Justice

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By Robert D. Novak
Thursday, August 30, 2007

On Saturday, one day after Alberto Gonzales submitted his resignation as attorney general and two days before it was made public, White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten was on the phone feeling out who might be available as a replacement. That Bolten had a short list in hand indicates that even if George W. Bush was ready to ride out his presidency with his dear friend at the Justice Department, senior aides were eager to stanch the political bleeding.

It is not surprising that nobody on Bolten's short list resembles Gonzales (though it would be hard to find anyone else so inappropriate for the job). But the high caliber of possible selections means President Bush is not content with a placeholder sure to get Senate confirmation. It also suggests a seriousness of purpose not evident when Bush transplanted Texas aides to Washington.

The president bemoaned Gonzales's falling victim to a Democratic lynch mob. But silence prevailed among Republicans in Congress who had to deal with the infuriating attorney general (with the exception of Gonzales's fellow former Texas Supreme Court justice, Sen. John Cornyn). Given the president's track record, these Republicans feared the worst regarding Gonzales's successor.

So Bolten's short list is a pleasant surprise. It includes former solicitor general Ted Olson, an accomplished lawyer and resolute conservative. According to administration sources, the list also includes two well-regarded former deputy attorneys general: George Terwilliger, a veteran Washington lawyer, and Laurence Silberman, a senior judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Those choices show that Bush is not taking the very bad advice that he choose a nonpolitical academic along the lines of Edward Levi, the University of Chicago president named attorney general by Gerald Ford. Levi turned out to be Ford's enemy within. Not every president need select his own brother, as John F. Kennedy did, but a friendly face at Justice is needed.

President Bush just went too far in picking a friend who was loyal but also incompetent (a complaint never lodged against Bobby Kennedy). All of Gonzales's senior political positions in Texas -- secretary of state, governor's counsel and Supreme Court justice -- came thanks to Bush's patronage. When he became president, Bush was less interested in quality than loyalty as he brought Texas aides to Washington.

I first met Gonzales in 2001 when, along with other conservative journalists, I went to the White House for a background briefing by presidential counsel Gonzales on the new president's judicial nominations. I was stunned by the incoherence of the briefer. When I checked with several Republican senators, I received the same verdict. Their judgment was that Gonzales was not qualified to hold a senior governmental position.

Gonzales's handling of the crisis over the firing of U.S. attorneys set new standards for incompetence. In the midst of the furor, he agreed to address the National Press Club on May 15 (insisting on breakfast instead of the usual lunch). It was by chance the 44th anniversary of this column, and I concluded that in all those years I had never seen anything like it.

Gonzales arrived in time for the speech but did not make the customary greeting to the other head-table guests. With the capital poised for something about the U.S. attorneys, he delivered an irrelevant address prepared by the Justice bureaucracy. During the question-and-answer period, however, Gonzales repeatedly blamed the problems on Paul McNulty, who had resigned that day as his deputy.

Leaving does not mean Gonzales is safe from the Senate's Democratic sharks, led by Patrick Leahy and Charles Schumer, and contempt-of-Congress charges. But the president's concern now is getting a new attorney general past the Senate Judiciary Committee. Everybody on the short list can count on trouble from Leahy and Schumer. It is questionable whether any of them would undergo that harrowing experience to serve for 16 months in a lame-duck administration.

In Tuesday's Wall Street Journal, former Republican Justice Department officials said the new attorney general must protect presidential prerogatives against congressional encroachment. That is correct, but George W. Bush can blame himself and Alberto Gonzales for the danger.

? 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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