No moral authority

May 17, 2007

What do you call a man so devoid of decency that he would try to take advantage of a critically ill hospital patient, and so lacking in integrity that he would scapegoat a deputy for the growing scandal on his watch?

Amazingly, the answer still is: attorney general of the United States.

Alberto R. Gonzales continues to serve as the nation's top law enforcement officer despite mounting evidence that he is willing to ignore laws, rules, regulations and conventions to do the bidding of President Bush.

As a final service to his longtime friend, Mr. Gonzales should voluntarily depart the office for which he is so ill-suited. But he seems oblivious to the code of honorable conduct.

The attorney general wasn't the only official tarred Tuesday in former Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey's account of an attempt by White House aides to circumvent Justice Department objections to a secret program of wiretapping Americans without court approval that later became highly controversial. Former White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. accompanied Mr. Gonzales, who was then White House counsel, to the bedside of the ailing and disoriented Attorney General John Ashcroft in a futile bid to get him to overrule a decision by his subordinates with which he had earlier concurred.

This peek into the high-drama backroom intrigue of the Bush White House, complete with flashing sirens and threats of mass resignations, had a movie script quality to it. Indeed, Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania compared it to the Saturday Night Massacre, when two Justice Department officials quit rather than comply with President Richard M. Nixon's order to fire Watergate prosector Archibald Cox.

In this instance, too, there were individual heroic acts. But none in the behavior of Mr. Gonzales, who, unlike Mr. Card, remained in government and went on to replace Mr. Ashcroft as attorney general.

About the same time that Mr. Comey was recounting his tale, Mr. Gonzales was offering another unflattering glimpse into his character. He told reporters at the National Press Club that the mass firings of U.S. attorneys for which his department is under investigation were the responsibility of his deputy, Paul J. McNulty, who recently announced plans to leave government. This scapegoating came after Mr. Gonzales tried and failed to pin the U.S. attorney controversy on Kyle Sampson, his former chief of staff.

Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel yesterday joined the growing list of Republicans calling for Mr. Gonzales to step down, saying he had lost the "moral authority" for his post.

To say the least.

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