Yes, Alberto Gonzales’ name was “dragged through the mud,” as President Bush complained Monday after his attorney general announced he was resigning.
But Gonzales jumped into the pit quite on his own. Head first. And the president’s reaction, typical for its abject lack of self-responsibility, reflected the arrogance that finally helped bring Gonzales down.
It’s no surprise that neither Gonzales nor Bush offered anything even resembling regret for any of the attorney general’s self-inflicted wounds. Give the administration high grades for consistency — it doesn’t admit its mistakes.
But Gonzales made plenty.
He was on the front lines of the administration’s charge into warrantless wiretapping, and while still working as White House counsel had the audacity to try and convince his ailing predeccesor — alongside his hospital bed — to approve it.
But the chief cause of his undoing was his coup on the integrity of the Justice Department, which he attempted to retool as a political arm of the White House. He steadfastly denied that his firings of eight U.S. attorneys, including respected Republican John McKay of Seattle, were improper. But they were clearly done for political reasons — in McKay’s case, likely because some of Bush’s supporters here were angry he declined to pursue local allegations of voter fraud. (McKay said there wasn’t enough evidence to justify a deeper investigation.)
In the aftermath, Gonzales showed an incredible — literally — lack of memory during testimony before Congress. Some of what he did recall was later countered by his own subordinates. Even many leading Republicans in Congress had long ago joined calls for his ouster.
Yes, U.S. attorneys are political appointees who serve at the pleasure of the president. He can fire them for any reason. But when he chooses to do so to further partisan political ends, a very clear line of integrity is crossed.
Good U.S. attorneys like McKay are careful to check their partisanship at the door. The officer who leads the Justice Department should be held to no less of a standard. That must be the lesson learned from this sorry tale of hubris and underhandedness, and it must be taken to heart by future presidents of any party.
It’s the people’s Justice Department, not the president’s.