By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 14, 2007
After nine months of noisy controversy over his troubled tenure, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales is leaving office quietly today with a low-key farewell address to Justice Department employees in Washington.
Gonzales, who has made only three public appearances since announcing his resignation on Aug. 27, is expected to dwell on his record in combating terrorism, child exploitation and other crimes rather than on the divisive issues that forced him from the job.
During a brief news conference yesterday in Des Moines, Gonzales played down those controversies, including the congressional uproar over the firings of nine U.S. attorneys last year and the Justice Department and congressional investigations into whether he lied in testimony or attempted to influence the testimony of a witness.
"We're all human and all of us make mistakes, and the thing that's important is to identify when those mistakes are made, acknowledge the mistakes, correct the mistakes and then you move on," Gonzales said in answer to a reporter's question, without going into detail. "So, you know, that's what I've endeavored to do as the attorney general."
A low-profile exit is unsurprising for Gonzales, who was in many respects a cipher even to some of his closest aides, according to many current and former Justice Department officials.
A taciturn manager who often left underlings guessing at his thoughts, Gonzales dropped few hints of his plans after leaving office. It will be the first time in more than a decade that Gonzales will not be serving his friend and longtime patron, President Bush.
Gonzales announced his departure after many political observers had become convinced that he would tough it out in the job. The attorney general, who never had a natural political base, had few allies left after a series of blunders and missteps that prompted even many Republicans to question his truthfulness and management skills.
"This is a quiet ending to a sad chapter at the Department of Justice," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who was the first lawmaker to call for Gonzales's resignation earlier this year. "The attorney general was never a mean person, but he totally misperceived his role. He had one of the most politicized tenures in the history of the Justice Department."
One former senior official at the agency said the controversies that dogged Gonzales this year exacerbated his disconnect from the department's core missions. "The AG is just sort of drifting off, but he's been minimizing his activity for a long time," this former official said. "It's been very quiet on the fifth floor," the official added, referring to the location of the attorney general's office suite.
Almost every senior Justice Department official has resigned or announced plans to depart this year, leaving the department under the control of more than a dozen acting officials. More than a quarter of the nation's U.S. attorneys are also temporary appointees, partly because of the mass firings that eventually had repercussions on Gonzales's tenure.
Solicitor General Paul D. Clement will serve as acting attorney general starting next week.
Justice officials and others who have had contact with Gonzales in recent weeks say he appears relieved and happier since announcing his resignation. He has been visiting the major components of the Justice Department to thank employees, these sources said.
On Tuesday night, a group former and current assistant attorneys general -- who head the major Justice Department divisions -- held a private farewell dinner for Gonzales in Washington, several sources said. The attorney general became tearful at one point during the dinner, which kept a positive tone and included accolades, two sources said.
"He was able to keep his spirits up throughout this whole process," one Justice Department aide said. "But certainly a lot of stress has been lifted. I think he's looking forward to moving ahead."
Today's farewell ceremony in the Justice Department's Great Hall will focus on Gonzales's priorities, including an anti-gang initiative, the prosecution of human-trafficking and immigration crimes, and the creation of the National Security Division to oversee counterintelligence and counterterrorism efforts.
Gonzales and his aides will also talk at length about Project Safe Childhood, an initiative that Gonzales has labored over to battle child pornography and exploitation. Yesterday's visit to Iowa was a previously scheduled trip meant to highlight that program. "I intend to continue my own work on behalf of kids after I have returned to private life," he said.