Replace Gonzales with different kind of attorney general

March 19, 2007|By STEVE CHAPMAN

When James Buckley ran for the U.S. Senate in New York in 1970, his campaign billboards asked a question: "Isn't it time we had a senator?" The controversy surrounding the Justice Department raises a question of its own: "Isn't it time we had an attorney general?"

Alberto R. Gonzales started out in Washington as the president's man, and he did nothing to endanger his favored status. But that has left the rest of us sorely unrepresented.

The uproar over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys may be a case where Mr. Gonzales had sound reasons, rather than unsavory political motives, for doing what he did. Someone who has consistently been a pliable administration functionary, though, can hardly expect the benefit of the doubt when scandal erupts. That makes this a good time to consider what sort of person ought to replace Mr. Gonzales.

The short answer is: someone very different. Mr. Gonzales owes almost everything to George W. Bush, who brought him on as his legal adviser when he was governor of Texas, appointed him to the state Supreme Court, gave him the job of White House counsel and installed him at the Justice Department. It's about as easy to imagine Mr. Gonzales standing up to the president as it is to picture Mickey Mouse biting Walt Disney.

Whatever else he has done in Washington, he has conspicuously failed to earn a reputation for fearless and independent judgment, so everything that has come out about the removal of the prosecutors has been interpreted in the most incriminating fashion.

Some of it is hard to interpret any other way. The attorney general is entitled to get rid of mediocre prosecutors. Yet of the seven who got the gate in December, two had just been given high grades by Kyle Sampson, then Mr. Gonzales' chief of staff. One of those rated unsatisfactory was H. E. "Bud" Cummins of Arkansas, who the department now admits was removed only to make room for a former aide to Karl Rove. And now we also know that the White House, which had denied any role in the firings, was involved from the start.

But getting rid of Mr. Gonzales will be nothing to applaud if Mr. Bush replaces him with another friend or partisan player carrying out a White House agenda. What is needed is the lawyer equivalent of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, a distinguished figure with unblemished integrity, a titanium backbone and an excess of independence and competence.

An even better model is Edward Levi, who was charged with restoring confidence in the Justice Department in the aftermath of Watergate. He was a respected law professor and president of the University of Chicago, not a buddy of President Gerald R. Ford's, and he carried out his mission impeccably. As Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said later, Mr. Levi's crucial asset was "a level of integrity such as there could never be any doubt about his honesty, forthrightness or truthfulness." That would be a change, wouldn't it?

Candidates such as Mr. Levi don't grow on trees, but I can think of people who have the attributes the department and the country need right now. One is Harvard law professor Charles Fried, who was solicitor general under President Ronald Reagan. Another is John C. Danforth, the former Republican senator from Missouri who headed the investigation into the 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. Or maybe retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, fresh from a stint on the Iraq Study Group, would do her country one more service.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays in The Sun. His e-mail is schapman@tribune.com.

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