Leader Blues

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Gonzales had to go

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales must have performed some public-spirited act in his many years in the service of George W. Bush, but his resignation at long last was easily his noblest. It relieves a blight on the presidency and gives the country a fresh lease on impartial justice.

President Bush praised his longtime loyalist, who had been giving him advice that he wanted to hear for 15 years. He said Democrats had unfairly victimized Gonzales.

But Little Rock’s Harry E. “Bud” Cummins II, who got this ball rolling by contesting the Justice Department’s explanations for firing a big batch of U.S. attorneys, got it right. Gonzales had to go, Cummins said, because he had corrupted the federal system of justice by politicizing it. It was not just Democrats. After months of lying and stonewalling, Gonzales was virtually bereft of supporters in his own party.

Even at the end, hours before his resignation became public but well after he had notified the president, Gonzales was still lying, saying there was no truth to rumors that he was leaving.

He took a cue from the president, who last year publicly insisted that Donald Rumsfeld was going to remain as secretary of defense after he had already picked his successor. Lying is just no big deal anymore.

Now the president must choose an attorney general for the last 15 months of his administration and he is obliged to appoint someone who will swear to administer even-handed justice and mean it. Surely it will not be Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who is most prominently mentioned.

Chertoff is Washington’s quintessential hatchet man. He will have to answer questions about his lassitude and incompetence after Hurricane Katrina and about whether he lied or had incompetent aides when he testified that he knew nothing about the brutal interrogation techniques at Guantanamo Naval Base when he was head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and his aides were attending meetings on the interrogations.

The Washington speculation is that the president cannot put an independent lawyer in charge of justice because he has too much at stake.

Republicans remember President Bill Clinton’s attorney general, Janet Reno, who appointed special prosecutors — seven of them —to investigate the Clinton administration upon the slightest whiff or rumor of scandal.

With investigations swirling around the political manipulation in the Justice Department and other cabinet offices and wholesale contracting fraud in the Iraq and Afghanistan war operations, Bush politically cannot afford a Janet Reno. The country cannot afford anything less.