Hat Tip: by Todd J. Gilman, Dallas Morning News
WASHINGTON – Al Gonzales was a corporate lawyer with little political experience when Texas’ newly elected governor stopped by his office to size him up. They hit it off instantly, the scion of a political dynasty and the son of migrant workers.
Mr. Gonzales became counsel to the governor, and for the last dozen years, hitched his career to that of his patron.
But the ride has ended. Mr. Gonzales announced his resignation Monday morning after more than two years as the nation’s first Hispanic attorney general. He submitted the resignation to the president last Friday, and the president accepted Sunday during a meeting at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.
“It has been one of my greatest privileges to lead the Department of Justice,” Gonzales said, announcing his resignation effective Sept. 17 in a terse statement. He took no questions and gave no reason for stepping down.
The announcement ends a months-long battle with Republican and Democratic critics who said Mr. Gonzales should be forced out over the handling of FBI terrorism investigations and the firing of U.S. attorneys.
It’s sad that we live in a time when a talented and honorable person like Alberto Gonzales is impeded from doing important work because his good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons,” President Bush said Monday in Waco, portraying Mr. Gonzales as the victim of “months of unfair treatment.”
Mr. Bush called him “a man of integrity, decency and principle,” and touted among Mr. Gonzales’ accomplishments some of the same legislation and policies that have most angered civil liberties groups, including the Patriot Act and the law allowing accused terrorists to stand trial by military commission.
Solicitor General Paul Clement will be acting attorney general until a replacement is found and confirmed by the Senate, Bush said.
Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff was among those mentioned as possible successors, though a senior administration official said the matter had not been raised with Chertoff. Bush leaves Washington next Monday for Australia, and Gonzales’ replacement might not be named by then, the official said.
When Mr. Gonzales moved to the White House, he became the legal architect of some of the administration’s most controversial policies – on torture, domestic snooping, detention of terror suspects – and a central player in fights over reshaping the judiciary to the president’s liking.
It was a mutually beneficial relationship, until the uproar over the bungled, politically charged firings of U.S. attorneys.
“They just bonded. Al is a very, very fine lawyer. He has a way of being direct and thorough and was just a great counselor, a great consigliere,” said Houston attorney Pat Oxford, a longtime friend of the president who was with him that day in Houston, when Mr. Gonzales’ career turned and Mr. Bush became his sole client. “It’s worked perfectly, until this moment.”
The Harvard-trained lawyer from Humble, Texas, loyally protected George W. Bush’s secrets and pushed the Bush agenda through five assignments, endearing himself with utter discretion on such matters as the governor’s youthful brushes with the law, and with valued legal advice on such knotty topics as death row clemency requests..
Mr. Gonzales worked for Mr. Bush as counsel to the governor, Texas secretary of state, justice on the state supreme court, White House counsel and, finally, U.S. attorney general – a cabinet post, the nation’s top law enforcement official, an achievement far beyond the dreams of his immigrant parents.
It was a meteoric rise, and a spectacular fall.
Critics say Mr. Gonzales can blame himself for the bungled firings, providing Congress with contradictory and misleading explanations and opening the administration to allegations of cronyism, politically-motivated interference and plain bad judgment.
“Embodying the American dream is not sufficient reason to serve as attorney general,” Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said recently. “The attorney general of the United States is the people’s lawyer, not the president’s lawyer.”
Now, it’s back to private life for Mr. Gonzales. Mr. Oxford said in a recent interview that, “Any law firm in America would be honored to have Al Gonzales. … His career is still on the upward trajectory.”
The departure lets the president shed a major political albatross, but also costs him a longtime confidant. And it marks the near-purge of Mr. Bush’s Texas inner circle. Political guru Karl Rove’s last day at the White House is later this week. Adviser Dan Bartlett and White House counsel Harriet Miers, a former Dallas councilwoman, quit earlier this year.
It’s not clear why, after months of demands for his firing, Mr. Gonzales finally succumbed.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, speaking Monday morning on Fox News, called it a “sad day” and blamed a “hyperpartisan atmosphere” in Washington for the attorney general’s ouster.
“I think he was probably just worn down by the criticism,” said Mr. Cornyn who, like Mr. Gonzales, had served as a justice on the Texas Supreme Court. “I guess Al Gonzales had had enough.”
Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Mr. Gonzales had turned the Justice Department into “a political arm of the White House,” and had “suffered a severe crisis of leadership that allowed our justice system to be corrupted by political influence.”
House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., emphasized the “cloud of suspicion” that continues to hang over the attorney general.
Accusing him of manipulating the nation’s justice system for partisan political gains, Mr. Conyers indicated that Congress will keep pressing the administration for more details about political motives behind the firing of U.S. attorneys. “The continued stonewalling of the White House in the U.S. Attorney scandal has deprived the American people of the truth. If the power of the prosecutor has been misused in the name of partisanship, we deserve a full airing of the facts,” Mr. Conyers said.
Matthew Orwig, a Dallas lawyer who served President Bush for more than five years as chief federal prosecutor in East Texas, said Mr. Gonzales still has plenty of friends in Texas and will be welcomed home “with open arms” – and, probably, a decent private sector job.
But “whether he’s at the height of his marketability – that’s been somewhat devalued. Even his friends will have to say that his term was not successful,” said Mr. Orwig, who stepped down three months ago as U.S. Attorney and is now managing partner at Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal’s Dallas office.
“To a person, every one of the US attorneys who was asked to leave has more talent and integrity than the people who wanted them to leave, and I still don’t think there’s any plausible explanation of a good reason for the administration to ask them to leave,” Mr. Orwig said. “…At the beginning of his term people were concerned that Al Gonzales didn’t have the experience or talent to be attorney general, and by the end of his term people were concerned that Al just didn’t have the character. Why he held on, I don’t know.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report