Who Should Replace Alberto Gonzales?

The New Republic, April 2, 2007

Alberto Gonzales is toast. He apparently doesn’t realize this. President Bush doesn’t either. But Gonzales’ tenure as attorney general—or, at least, as an effective attorney general—is already over. Every day he fails to resign he disserves Bush, the Justice Department, and the public at large. Every day Bush lets loyalty to his old friend prevent him from demanding Gonzales’s resignation, he mires himself deeper in an altogether unnecessary scandal. The line that Republican Senators and The Wall Street Journal editorial page have been gamely trying—that the current flap over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys is just a partisan attack by Democrats—won’t cut it. This scandal is a self-inflicted wound.

I don’t say this with any pleasure. Gonzales is a genial fellow who has been very gracious to me on more than one occasion. I have tried over the past few weeks to view the emerging facts in the light most favorable to him. The trouble is that, approached that way, the facts are still devastating. Even if one doesn’t believe that the firings were motivated by improper political considerations, the department carried them out in a manner that indelibly stained them with that reasonable inference. Once Congress and the press got hold of the story, both Gonzales and his deputy, Paul McNulty, made statements about the matter that appear to have been, well, false. And Gonzales then tried to distance himself from the whole thing, lamely taking responsibility—whatever that means—while saying that he wasn’t aware of what his former chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, was doing. Sampson’s testimony Thursday before the Senate Judiciary Committee contradicted Gonzales on important points.

The attorney general, in other words, is guilty—at a minimum—of a massive administrative blunder that has undermined his credibility and provoked a major executive privilege fight for the White House. And that could be an overly generous reading. Under these circumstances, Gonzales will never be a credible attorney general again, and his resignation—or firing—should be a foregone conclusion. There is, in fact, only one hard question concerning Gonzales’s fate: Who should replace him?

You might not think finding a new attorney general would be difficult. Running the Justice Department is a plum post, after all, and the Republican Party has no shortage of first-rate legal talent. Indeed, in a normal administration or at a less sensitive time, replacing Gonzales wouldn’t be hard. But, between a sinking administration that still demands loyalty above all else and congressional Democrats keen on using their new oversight powers, finding a candidate who satisfies both sides will be hard. The next attorney general must be someone acceptable enough to Democrats not just to get confirmed but to tamp down the fire Gonzales has witlessly set. But he must also be enough of a conservative to satisfy the White House. And he needs a reputation for probity and moral seriousness sufficient to speak to the public and to Congress with the respect that Gonzales obviously lacks. It’s a tall order—a pinch so tight that it squeezes out almost all of the names being bandied about in public.

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