Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Going beyond Gonzo

Now that Alberto Gonzales has decided to walk away from the smoking wreckage once known as the U.S. Justice Department, it will be instructive to see whether President Bush decides to hand the reins to another incompetent crony (assuming there are any left), or whether he takes the high road (a rare excursion) and actually nominates someone with the smarts and integrity to repair the beleaguered institution.

President Gerald Ford took the latter route in 1975, not long after he replaced the disgraced Richard Nixon and was tasked to clean up Justice. The department had been badly tainted by Watergate; as Ford later remarked, "it was essential that a new attorney general be appointed who would restore integrity and competence." He tapped Edward Levi, a University of Chicago legal scholar with strong leadership skills who earned plaudits from Democrats and Republicans alike; as Antonin Scalia would later write, "(Levi) brought two qualities to the job, a rare intellectuality and a level of integrity such as there could never be any doubt about his honesty, forthrightness, or truthfulness."

Will Bush opt for the Levi model, and pick an independent-minded outsider? I suspect that would not be his first impulse, given his habit of relying only on a small circle of diehard loyalists. Yesterday, he was still lauding the loyal Gonzo, complaining about how "it's sad that we live in a time when a talented and honorable person...is impeded from doing important work becauase his good name was dragged through the mud."

By attempting to pin the blame on the era we live in, Bush, of course, was ignoring the fact that Gonzales' record of ineptitude had alienated even those congressional Republicans who had long tried to give him the benefit of the doubt.

I'm not going to recap all the failings of an attorney general whose best defense, when asked to explain the unprecedented politicization of Justice (witness the prosecutor purge scandal), was that he simply didn't know what was going on. Suffice it to say that Gonzales presided over a department that has been decimated in the upper ranks. This year alone, we have witnessed the departure (via resignation) of the deputy attorney general, the acting associate attorney general, the attorney general's chief of staff, the deputy attorney general's chief of staff, the department's liaison to the White House, a high-ranking counsel at the Executive Office for United States Attorneys, and the assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division.

But Bush may be politically constrained from nominating another White House errand boy. This time he faces a Democratic-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee, and there's no way that Patrick Leahy and his crew are going to sign off on anybody who believes that Justice should function merely as a political arm of the Republican National Committee. (Indeed, Democrats have leverage now. They might decree that confirmation for a new attorney general hinges on Bush's willingness to surrender internal documents, and staffer testimony, in the prosecutor purge scandal.) And no quality individual would even want the job, unless he or she can extract assurances from the White House that there will be no political interference.

And for pragmatic reasons alone, Bush needs to find a Levi. Bush soon will be battling Congress over executive privilege and domestic surveillance. Gonzales, with his credibility in tatters, would have been the wrong salesman. There are plenty of respected, independent legal scholars who can make a case for strong executive authority (just as Levi did, during the Ford administration), strictly on the merits.

Now that Bush's circle of inept Texas cronies has shrunk to nothing, he may have no choice except to reach out.