Securing justice

August 28, 2007

Alberto R. Gonzales has at last been hounded out of the attorney general's office, but President Bush's indignation at his exit in disgrace is misdirected at Democrats.

Mr. Bush complained Mr. Gonzales' "good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons," but both men contributed mightily to the result. His longtime friend was thrust into a job he never understood and was ill-suited for. As the nation's top law enforcement officer, Mr. Gonzales continued to perform as the president's personal counsel, sacrificing independence and integrity to unwavering loyalty. He became a liability to the White House and his party, and had to go.

The top priority now for both the White House and Congress should be to work together to rebuild the Justice Department, which Mr. Gonzales is leaving in a shambles.

Mostly, that means agreeing on a successor chosen primarily on the basis of legal credentials, perhaps a career federal prosecutor who could be elevated from Justice ranks for the final 16 months of the president's term.

It also means, though, congressional Democrats must tone down their partisan attacks. There may indeed be a need for a further accounting of the political abuses at Justice during Mr. Gonzales' tenure, and perhaps the adoption of reforms as well. But barring dramatic revelations, continuing calls for a special prosecutor - as some Democrats are doing - guarantees further turmoil at the department, which will accomplish nothing but to impede its important work.

Democrats can't take credit for the attorney general's ouster; he was done in by his former employees. Bush-appointed U.S. attorneys, dumped from their jobs after running afoul of the Republican establishment in their home states, blew the whistle on a patronage system at Justice that improperly, if not illegally, set partisan criteria for civil service positions and allowed political goals to taint prosecutorial decisions.

Mr. Gonzales helped to seal his fate by stumbling through congressional testimony fraught with denials and memory losses. Some of the contradictions arise from Mr. Gonzales' account of his visit, as White House counsel, to the hospital bedside of his predecessor, Attorney General John Ashcroft, in a failed bid to win Mr. Ashcroft's approval of a domestic spying program. FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III as well as former Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey both disputed Mr. Gonzales' assertion that there was no internal dispute over the warrantless wiretap program.

The list of complaints against the attorney general continues at length, nearly all focused on his inability to put the rule of law before Mr. Bush's political interests. If the White House and Congress apply a dollop of goodwill and common sense to replacing him, Mr. Gonzales should be an easy act to follow.

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