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Gonzales' tenure was an argument against cronyism

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

(Photo)
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announces his resignation during at a press conference at the Department of Justice in Washington, Monday, Aug. 27, 2007.
(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
WASHINGTON -- Alberto Gonzales was a case study in cronyism, a nice guy and presidential pal who became attorney general on the strength of those two credentials.

He was not up to the job.

In the end, Gonzales' greatest achievement may be that he produced a rare note of unanimity among Republicans and Democrats in Washington: They agree his tenure was an unmitigated failure.

"Reasonable people have been saying since the spring that Gonzales should resign, and four months later everybody says this should have happened a long time ago," said Republican consultant Joe Gaylord. "My guess is the close ties to George W. Bush made that impossible."

The attorney general said Monday he was resigning.

Every public service job Gonzales has held he owes to Bush -- general counsel to the Texas governor, Texas secretary of state, state Supreme Court justice, White House counsel and finally attorney general.

That debt may have made Gonzales too eager to please his boss, too deferential toward higher-powered Texans like Karl Rove and too dismissive of critics in Congress.

His rapid rise may have left him ill-equipped to manage the huge Justice Department and unseasoned in Washington politics.

Whatever the reason, Gonzales' record of scandal would have more quickly doomed a less-connected public official.

One of his first acts in the White House was to urge Bush to waive anti-torture laws and international treaties that protect prisoners of war. Critics say the policy led to abuses of the type seen at Abu Ghraib.

As the White House's top lawyer, Gonzales notified chief of staff Andy Card after the Justice Department opened an investigation into who revealed a CIA agent's identity. Gonzales waited 12 hours to tell anyone else in the White House, a gap that could have helped aides cover their tracks.

In 2004, Gonzales visited the hospital bed of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft to get the Justice Department's approval of certain intelligence gathering methods.

Gonzales later denied under oath that he pressured the ailing Ashcroft to recertify the "terrorist surveillance program," testimony contradicted by FBI director Robert S. Mueller and former Deputy Attorney General James Comey.

As attorney general, he told Congress in 2005 that the president was fully empowered to eavesdrop on Americans without warrants as part of the war on terror.

His testimony about the firings of several U.S. attorneys was contradicted at least three times during congressional hearings -- once by Gonzales himself.

This was the most avoidable controversy, because the president has every right to fire federal prosecutors. But Gonzales kept changing his story and dodging direct questions, giving his critics the rope to hang him.

In testimony before Congress, Gonzales answered "I don't know" and "I can't recall" scores of times, and even some Republicans said his testimony was evasive.

True to form, Bush praised Gonzales' performance and said the attorney general was "honest" and "honorable."

"Honest" was not a word many lawmakers would use to describe Gonzales' testimony.

"Alberto Gonzales is the first attorney general who thought the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth were three different things," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill.

Earlier this month, the president grew irritated when asked about accountability in his administration.

"Implicit in your questions is that Al Gonzales did something wrong," Bush replied testily at a news conference. "I haven't seen Congress say he's done anything wrong."

Actually, many in Congress had accused Gonzales of wrongdoing. But the president was not listening to anybody who called Gonzales a hack or crony.

"I think the president overlooked what appears to have been malfeasance and, at least as I read the record, perhaps as much as perjury before Congress," said Marc Kruman, a history professor and director of the Center for the Study of Citizenship at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Bush is not the first president to fall into the crony trap.

"The danger of bringing in a crony is that you will overlook malfeasance and corruption," Kruman said. "The benefits are that you will have someone you can trust in an extremely sensitive position."

As always, Washington politicians will momentarily swear off cronyism until they want their backs covered by a brother, a spouse or a pal.

Sen. Arlen Specter, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, urged Bush to pick a current or former senator to replace Gonzales.

"That's always a big help" Specter said, "if you know the person."

Actually, knowing the person too well can be a big problem.


EDITOR'S NOTE -- Ron Fournier has covered politics for The Associated Press for nearly 20 years.


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