PRESIDENT BUSH can talk all he wants about the "unfair treatment" he says attorney general Alberto Gonzales has received, but it was the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Arlen Specter, who called Gonzales's Justice Department "dysfunctional." The department more than earned that criticism because under Gonzales it became a wing of the White House political operation. His resignation yesterday is an overdue recognition of his failure to maintain the department's traditional standards of professionalism and nonpartisanship.
Gonzales's leadership started coming undone with the firing of nine US attorneys, all Bush appointees, an unprecedented house-cleaning in the middle of a presidency. Several had prosecuted Republican officeholders or decided not to pursue questionable allegations of voter fraud by Democrats. Called on the carpet by Congress, Gonzales could give no coherent explanation of why the nine were sacked or what role he played in the purge, raising the suspicion that Bush's political aides had engineered it.
The message of the firings was that Bush wanted a Justice Department that was willing to put partisan political score-settling above the law. It is no wonder that Specter concluded that Congress should "find a way to end the tenure of Attorney General Gonzales."
Gonzales, the president's longtime Texas friend, showed his unfitness for the office when, as White House counsel in 2002, he signed off on a legal opinion authorizing torture by US interrogators, a document that was later withdrawn under criticism. He also wrote a memorandum that called some Geneva Convention protections for prisoners of war "quaint" and "obsolete."
Gonzales's predecessor at Justice, John Ashcroft, at least had had the good judgment to reject elements of the Bush program to wiretap Americans without warrants. An aide to Ashcroft described to Congress a distressing incident in 2004 when Gonzales and Bush's chief of staff, Andrew Card, visited Ashcroft late at night in his hospital bed while he was recovering from surgery, pressing him to change his mind on the wiretap program. Ashcroft, to his credit, refused.
As critical of Gonzales as Republicans like Specter have been, he underwent such intense scrutiny only because Democrats took over Congress in the 2006 elections. The Senate Judiciary Committee should show similar moxie when Bush's nominee to succeed Gonzales comes before it for confirmation.
Justice needs a leader like the scrupulous Edward Levi, who was appointed attorney general by President Ford after Watergate. Bush must set aside the cronyism that led him to nominate Gonzales and choose an attorney general who can begin rebuilding a department that Gonzales is leaving in a shambles.