In the Loop: Alberto Gonzales reflects on the Bush years

At Texas Tech, the onetime attorney general once known as
At Texas Tech, the onetime attorney general once known as "Fredo" in Bush-speak is now "Professor." (We were betting on "Teach.") (Brent Humphreys)
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By Al Kamen
Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Keeping up with a perennial Loop Favorite . . . Alberto "Fredo" Gonzales, the former attorney general, is now contentedly ensconced in his poli-sci teaching gig at Texas Tech in Lubbock. Gonzales is one of about 20 people -- including former U.N. nuke inspector in chief Mohamed ElBaradei, Yao Ming, Robert Caro and Jerry Lee Lewis -- who help us reflect on weighty matters in Esquire's ninth annual Meaning of Life issue, the January edition, out next week.

"I guess I would use my son's word: cool. It was cool to work in the White House," he says, noting: "I really enjoyed my time in state government. . . . I had a different experience in Washington." Much of that experience involved investigations into torture of terrorists and the firing of several U.S. attorneys.

"The notion that what happened at Abu Ghraib was a result of the policies of the Bush administration I just think is totally ridiculous," Gonzales says. "You do the best you can, looking at precedent, in trying to anticipate where the Supreme Court is going to draw the balance between the protection of civil liberties and protecting the national security, and in some cases we guessed wrong."

Has he heard from former President George W. Bush? "He called me my first day of class here. First thing he said: 'Hello, Professor.' "

On life: "This may sound egotistical, but to me it is important that when I leave this earth, I would have made a difference -- that people would know Al Gonzales lived, he touched lives, he made a difference, he left a mark."

On the fired prosecutors: "Of course the White House was consulted about these decisions [on the firings], because these were presidential appointees, and of course Karl [Rove] would have some kind of role in that. But the decision was made on what I believed to be the consensus recommendation of the department leadership."

"The media will say" that in his sworn Hill testimony, " 'Al Gonzales said he didn't know 12o times,' " Gonzales told Esquire. That was because he often got "asked the same question and the reason you get asked the question is because these senators are so busy -- I guess they're busy -- and they leave the hearing room, so they don't know the question has been asked." (And we're not going to speculate about what's apparently been keeping some of them so busy.)

"We should have," Gonzales says in hindsight, "abandoned the idea of removing the U. S. attorneys once the Democrats took the Senate. Because at that point we could really not count on Republicans to cut off investigations or help us at all with investigations. We didn't see that at the Department of Justice. Nor did the White House see that. Karl didn't see it. If we could do something over again, that would be it."

So remember that lesson learned: Before you do something really cool, make sure no one can investigate you. Especially useful advice in this town.

Moving slowly

Speaking of that 2006 brouhaha over U.S. attorneys allegedly being pressured and fired for not doing the political bidding of the White House, some might have thought that President Obama would have moved with some dispatch to dispatch the 93 U.S. attorneys appointed by President Bush and to put in some of his own.

Aside from wanting "your" people in these posts, the high-visibility jobs are often precursors to state or federal political or judicial careers. But while most of the Bush appointees have moved on, Obama, with strong support from Senate Democrats -- who dragged their feet in submitting candidates to the White House for nomination -- is making do with 20 Senate-confirmed Bush holdovers. He also has 15 career acting U.S. attorneys named by the Bush administration remaining in charge of these offices during his first year.

How else to explain how, with his first year in office just about over, Obama has managed to nominate only 34 people for U.S. attorney slots -- barely more than one-third of the openings available to him? What's more, only 24 of those nominees have been confirmed, according to Senate sources. (Obama has, as a stopgap, named about 20 acting U.S. attorneys from the career ranks to replace Bush departees.)

In contrast, Bill Clinton, in his first year as president, nominated 77 U.S. attorneys by Nov. 20, and 58 were confirmed. Bush II, starting just before the Senate recess in August 2001 and going until Dec. 20 of that year, nominated 68 U.S. attorneys, and 59 were confirmed. (In both cases, the remaining nominees were confirmed the following year.)

Moving backward

The same curious sense of urgency has prevailed on the judicial-appointments front. When former Harvard Law Review president Obama entered the Oval Office, there were only 53 vacancies for the 863 seats on the Supreme Court and the district and appeals courts.

As of Tuesday, there were 97 vacancies. The administration has nominated 30 folks to wear the black robes, 11 have been confirmed, 10 are pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee (three are expected to be approved there this week), and nine are waiting on the Senate floor. But given the icy relations these days among Senate D's and R's over judges, the betting is that few if any of them will be confirmed this year -- save for those related or close to senior GOP members.

After one year, Obama's actually seen a net increase of 44 vacancies on the federal courts.

Well, White House counsel Bob Bauer's problem now, isn't it?

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