From beginning to end, it was always all about Alberto

August 29, 2007|By Jonah Goldberg

"Even my worst days as attorney general have been better than my father's best days."

One doesn't want to begrudge Alberto R. Gonzales a brief, self-indulgent moment of mawkishness as he ignominiously departs the public stage. But one of his main problems was that mawkish self-indulgence was often his defining contribution to the public debate.

To the bitter end, Mr. Gonzales remained the most self-involved attorney general in modern memory. (Full disclosure: My wife worked for him and his predecessor.) Mr. Gonzales liked to give speeches about what a great country this is that it would let a man like him drive through the White House gates. He mentioned that he was the grandchild of immigrants, by my rough calculation, 12 trillion times.

Mr. Gonzales is no doubt sincere in his ethnic and familial pride and his fondness for President Bush. But it's hard not to see this stuff as a defense mechanism of a man long carried by a political operation with a weakness for Latino success stories and loyal cronies.

Whenever he took the initiative, he seemed out of his depth. When Mr. Gonzales took over as America's "top cop" in early 2005, he insisted that his Justice Department revive the Reno-era emphasis on "the children" as a defining mission of his tenure. Never mind that Republicans had invested a great deal in the (valid) argument that the Clinton Justice Department was too distracted and mushy-minded to recognize the al-Qaida threat. He surely should have gotten the memo that the war on terror was the supreme priority for the administration because he wrote the memo.

Has there ever been a major Cabinet secretary more politically tone-deaf?

To wit: Mr. Gonzales resigned Monday.

For months, Mr. Bush's most enduring loyalist has let the Democrats bebop and scat up one side of the administration and down the other over largely imaginary Justice Department scandals. What did Mr. Gonzales know? When did he know it? And what security program was that again? Mr. Gonzales was a pi?ata for Democrats; bash him from any angle and you got a prize.

And when seen in the klieg lights of a congressional hearing, Mr. Gonzales appeared about as sharp as a dull wooden spoon. And the spoon didn't exactly turn razor-keen when out of the spotlight, either. Earlier this summer, Mr. Gonzales agreed to headline a conference focused on law enforcement partnerships with the Muslim community. Another featured speaker? An imam from the Islamic Society of North America, a group that had just been named as an "unindicted co-conspirator" in the Holy Land Foundation terror-promotion trial.

Mr. Bush prizes loyalty above all else, which is why he tolerated generals with losing records, such as Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., for far too long and was willing to reward a bureaucrat such as Harriet E. Miers with a nomination to the Supreme Court. Likewise, Mr. Bush tolerated a dysfunctional Justice Department and an incompetent attorney general because he liked "Fredo."

Privately, Mr. Bush's defenders argued that times have not been propitious for a confirmation battle over a new attorney general, and neither Mr. Bush nor Mr. Gonzales wanted to be seen as caving to partisan pressure. In other words, better to have an ineffective attorney general dragging down the operation than to have a fight over an effective one.

But what, exactly, has been gained by having this feckless figurehead running the Justice Department lo these last few months? The Democrats didn't really want Mr. Gonzales to leave; they wanted to pull on him like a thread so as to further unravel the Bush presidency.

But now all of that is moot because Mr. Gonzales has changed his mind and wants to leave after all. "I have no reason to believe it wasn't fully his decision," a Justice Department insider told my National Review colleague, Rich Lowry. Well, that's sweet. By all means, take all the time you need, Mr. Gonzales. After all, it's all about you.

Jonah Goldberg is a syndicated columnist. His e-mail is

Thomas F. Schaller's column will return next week.

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