If there is one thing we have learned from the Bush administration, it is that this is not an organization that learns from — or admits — its mistakes.
From its failure to plan for the aftermath of the Iraq invasion to the president’s puzzling nomination of Harriet Miers to the United States Supreme Court to the botched response to Hurricane Katrina that reverberates two years later, the Bush White House has proved itself far more adept at deflecting blame for its own bad judgment than learning from it.
Bush’s selection of Alberto Gonzales as attorney general in 2005 was yet another personnel decision in which the president put his loyalty to his Texas circle of friends before the well-being of the nation. Later that year, Bush demonstrated this trait again with the nomination of Miers — a lawyer with no judicial record — to the nation’s highest court.
By the time Gonzales became attorney general in February 2005, he already had taken part in one of the administration’s darker chapters of the war on terror. In 2004, he and White House chief of staff Andrew Card visited then-Attorney General John Ashcroft at George Washington Hospital, where Ashcroft was being treated for gallstone pancreatitis. Gonzales and Card visited the ailing attorney general in an attempt to get his approval on a domestic surveillance program that Ashcroft’s Department of Justice had earlier deemed illegal.
Concerned that the White House was trying to take advantage of Ashcroft’s sickness, deputy attorney general James Comey and FBI Director Robert Mueller sped to the hospital, arriving just before Gonzales and Card. Ashcroft, weak and sick, refused to sign documents approving the surveillance program. The incident nearly triggered a mass resignation in the Justice Department.
We didn’t know about that incident until last May, when Comey recounted it during testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which was investigating Gonzales’ firing of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006. That investigation eventually showed a politicization of the Justice Department that made Gonzales the target of sharp criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike. Gonzales himself gave maddeningly confused and contradictory testimony to the judiciary committee.
All of this undermined public faith in the Justice Department. As government’s main arm in fighting government corruption, the Justice Department and its U.S. attorney’s offices across the country are especially mindful of protecting their integrity. As details filtered out of Karl Rove’s meddling and Gonzales’ odd state of unawareness in Justice Department dealings, the administration faced a tremendous crisis.
It seemed, however, that the only person in Washington unaware of this was President Bush. Even this week, when Gonzales finally stepped down, Bush blamed his political enemies for dragging Gonzales’ name “through the mud.”
Now Bush has a chance to make an appointment that could restore faith in the Justice Department. He managed to do something similar with his replacement of the polarizing Donald Rumsfeld with Robert Gates in December. The problem for Bush in this case is that the administration’s serial foibles may now compound themselves.
Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff has been mentioned as a possible successor to Gonzales, but surely his nomination will sink as the nation remembers the post-Katrina disaster. We believe U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald would be a worthy candidate. But he was judged “mediocre” by Gonzales’ office. And we doubt Vice President Cheney would relish adding the man who successfully prosecuted his former chief of staff to the Cabinet (which leads to another political tangent we won’t pursue here).
Were our space not running short, we would go on and on with more examples. We have seen the danger of the nation’s highest law enforcement officer putting politics and personal loyalty over principle. We hope the president has as well, though recent history suggests we limit our optimism.
Editorial: Restoring faith in Justice
Aug 31, 2007 at 12:01 AM Aug 31, 2007 at 12:49 PM