Bush's posse of Texans is riding off into sunset


August 28, 2007|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- They rode into town in 2001, bent on changing the capital and stamping it with George W. Bush's compassionate conservative brand.

The influential circle of Texans surrounding the president was close to him personally and shared many of his defining characteristics, including fierce loyalty, devotion to secrecy and a stubborn reluctance to admit error.

Now, those Texans are all but gone. The impending departure of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, two weeks after top White House aide Karl Rove resigned, reflects the waning of the Bush presidency, amid deep unpopularity at home and enormous problems overseas.

"The White House is getting to be a pretty lonely place for George Bush," said Paul C. Light, a New York University political scientist. "Dick Cheney is really the last person standing after all these resignations."

In contrast to Rove, who plotted Bush's rise to power, Gonzales was a prized protege. He began as then-Governor Bush's legal counsel in 1995, was promoted by Bush to high-level state positions and wound up as White House counsel in 2001.

Gonzales attracted criticism for his work in that job, including his role in post-Sept. 11 policies that promoted what some saw as torture in the interrogation of suspected terrorists. Democrats called for a perjury investigation last month after questions were raised about his testimony in a congressional probe into allegations of improper political influence at the Justice Department.

Bush, well aware of the growing power of Hispanic voters, advanced Gonzales as a role model, choosing him as the first Hispanic attorney general and considering him as a potential pick to be the first Latino on the Supreme Court. Gonzales, 52, leaves an administration that has experienced a sharp reversal of fortune with Hispanic voters, largely due to the Iraq war and a fierce debate this summer in which Republican politicians, though not Bush, were seen as anti-immigrant.

As recently as mid-July, Gonzales had told friends that he planned to stay in his job until the administration ended. But he yielded to reality as it became increasingly clear that he could not redeem himself in the face of unrelenting calls from Democrats, and some Republicans, for his resignation.

A White House spokesman acknowledged that the president did not try to talk him out of leaving when Gonzales told him late last week that he was stepping down. Those who know Gonzales said he is leaving of his own volition.

"The last eight months have taken a personal toll on Judge Gonzales and his family, as it would on any ordinary human being," said Viet Dinh, a former assistant attorney general, who noted that the pressure to resign was no greater last week than it was last spring.

As Rove did, Gonzales chose to wait until August, when Congress and much of Washington are on vacation, to announce his departure, in an apparent effort to show that he hadn't been hounded from office.

Bush spoke bitterly as he accepted the resignation, remarking that Gonzales' "good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons."

But it didn't pass without notice in Washington that Gonzales, whose entire public career was spent in Bush's service, was allowed to leave Crawford, Texas, after meeting with the president Sunday. As a result, there were no photographs of the two together yesterday, when they made separate statements 1,200 miles apart.

Republican relief over the decision could be glimpsed in the virtual absence of any immediate reaction from prominent figures in the party or its presidential candidates. Democrats, meantime, unleashed fresh criticism.

"Better late than never," was the entire statement from presidential candidate John Edwards.

"This resignation is not the end of the story. Congress must get to the bottom of this mess and follow the facts where they lead, into the White House," said Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic leader.

The Republican National Committee, which did not issue a statement about Gonzales or his service to the administration, responded with a statement from Chairman Mike Duncan, accusing Democrats of playing politics with the selection of a new attorney general.

As the exchanges heated up what normally is one of the quietest weeks of the year, analysts said they did not foresee any lessening of the confrontation in Washington, even though two of Democrat's favorite targets - Rove and Gonzales - were leaving the scene.

With presidential primaries fast approaching and the White House up for grabs, there is little incentive for Democrats to back off. Bush continues to be weak politically and preoccupied with defending the deployment of U.S. forces in Iraq.

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