Lance the boil, Mr. President. So says, in effect, a knowledgeable U.S. senator who is usually friendly to the Bush administration.
The boil is at the U.S. Department of Justice. The department has become painfully dysfunctional.
One of the hardest things for a good leader to do is to relieve from a position of power somebody who is not only a decent person but a personal friend, somebody who has done nothing unethical, but who just isn't up to the task. Unfortunately, that is what needs to be done in the case of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The AG's no better than fair-to-middling performance on other issues has now been overshadowed by his execrable performance in the matter of the eight U.S. attorneys recently replaced, and by his incredibly weak performance (claiming a truly pathetic memory of even the most objectively important meetings and conversations) in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee last Thursday.
The problem, says the senator to whom I spoke (who asked to remain nameless, but allowed some of the comments to be quoted as long as his name wasn't used), is not that Gonzales is ill intentioned or unintelligent, but that he just didn't have the requisite background for the job in the first place.
"He was asked to do something he didn't know anything about. He had never been in the Department of Justice and never had a real history in dealing with Department of Justice issues and therefore was unable to anticipate the minefields that are always out there. The attorney general's job is incredibly difficult. Every AG has been constantly attacked and placed under stress."
In such a "very difficult job," said the senator, a long familiarity with the challenges involved is essential.
That inexperience, suggested the senator, led directly to the now-acknowledged foul-ups in the case of the U.S. attorneys: "The U.S. Attorney thing would have been avoided if he had served in the department, perhaps as a U.S. Attorney or Assistant U.S. Attorney. I think he would have been less likely to have underestimated the problems he was dealing with and the kind of push-backs that occur."
The senator stopped just short of a definite call for Gonzales to step aside, but his considerations were highly practical.
First, he that if Gonzales stays in office while in a state of weakness, there is this to consider: "One of the problems it would appear he will have is attracting some top-flight people to run the department with not many months left. That's a tough call."
Speaking of President George W. Bush's options, the senator said: "If he could confirm somebody good, and get that person confirmed without too much delay, who really knew the Department of Justice and who could help avoid some of these minefields, that might be better."
In other words, Bush should search for a replacement of demonstrable competence that could run the highly difficult gamut of the Senate Judiciary Committee -- and should replace Gonzales only if he can find such a person. The idea is not to replace Gonzales for the sake of replacing him, but to do so in order to set high standards, to be seen as fixing a weak spot, in such a way that the Democrats would look petty (which they certainly are) if they try to block the nominee.
The senator's corollary was that if confirmation of such a person seems too dicey, Gonzales probably ought to stay despite the other considerations.
LEAVING THE SENATOR'S COMMENTS for now, it's worth noting that the experience of Supreme Court nominations John Roberts and Samuel Alito shows that superior qualifications and intellect are very difficult, politically, to oppose. Surely there are other Robertses and Alitos out there.
Two names I've been floating quite obviously meet the senator's requirements (not that I ran the names by the senator; this is just applying his logic to the situation at hand) and I would add another that comes close to meeting those requirements while adding other attractive qualifications. The first two are, first, former Deputy AG Larry Thompson (for Bush until 2003), also a former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia under Ronald Reagan, and second, current Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, a former federal appeals court judge and a legendary former federal prosecutor and assistant AG.
Thompson is now a senior vice president of Pepsico. His reputation is impeccable, and he would be difficult to block.
Chertoff might be raked over the coals a bit because of the administration's inept response to Hurricane Katrina. But most of the blame for that has been correctly laid at the feet of former FEMA Director Michael Brown, who failed to report through Chertoff as he was supposed to do. Ordinarily it might not be a good idea to switch the head of such an important department, because that would merely set up yet another confirmation battle for that other department -- but in this case, it is thought that Bush's in-house homeland security advisor, Frances Fragos Townsend, could easily step into Chertoff's role and would be easily confirmed.
The third name I would add has no direct DoJ experience, but makes up for it with a breadth of other applicable experience. He's Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox (so he does have experience heading a big agency with law enforcement functions), a longtime congressional leader, widely respected, and also a former senior associate counsel for President Ronald Reagan. He's brilliant, and while strongly conservative, he is seen as a bipartisan straight shooter, a man of principle.
All three of these men would be clear improvements over the well-meaning but overmatched -- and now discredited -- Gonzales. Unfortunately, this president has a reputation for valuing loyalty above competence. This is his chance to change that impression.
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