Public Opinion on Attorney General Gonzales

In Washington, the firing of eight U.S. attorneys has generated a scandal and talk of the possible dismissal or resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. But outside the Beltway, polling show that the idea has less traction.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand.

In a few minutes, how baby boomers have and are changing the country. Alex, will you never go away?

CHADWICK: Well, we're so endlessly fascinating. Okay. Republican Senator John Ensign says he's interviewing candidates to be the new U.S. attorney for Nevada. The removal of the last federal prosecutor there was, in Senator Ensign's words, completely mishandled by the Bush administration.

BRAND: The firing of eight U.S. attorneys may very well result in the dismissal or resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. It is the attraction of a true Washington scandal, but that is in Washington. Outside the Beltway, polls show, it has a lot less pull.

CHADWICK: NPR's Mike Pesca ponders the question, if an attorney general falls in a forest of alleged malfeasants but no one is listening? Well, here's Mike.

MIKE PESCA: In about 20 or 30 years, the news blogger Tron 3000 will run one of those this day in history items. The subject will be Alberto Gonzales. The object will be scandal. The verb is yet to be determined. It could be resigned, it could be withstood the storm. And your kids or grandkids will turn to you and say, who is Alberto Gonzales?

And if you are the typical American, you will answer, I have no idea. Jonathan Lavant(ph) was in Manhattan's Bryant Park yesterday, the first really nice day of the year, strumming his guitar and one would presume taking his constitutional liberties for granted. If I said the name to you - Alberto Gonzales - does that name ring a bell?

Mr. JONATHAN LAVANT (Resident, New York): No, it doesn't.

PESCA: What if I give you multiple choice? Is he the first baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals?

Mr. LAVANT: Yeah.

PESCA: No. That's Albert Pujols.

Is he the attorney general of the United States?

Mr. LAVANT: No.

PESCA: That's a yes.

Mr. LAVANT: Oh, okay. Geez, I guess I didn't know that one.

PESCA: Some New Yorkers like Charlie(ph) here, did recognize the name.

CHARLIE (Resident, New York): A person from his own office has taken the fifth, I mean what does that tell us.

PESCA: But most - it's Alberto Gonzales. What do you think of him?

Unidentified Man: I don't know who that is, bro.

PESCA: The name: Alberto Gonzales. Does that mean anything to you?

Unidentified Woman: Not really.

PESCA: Andrew Kohut is president of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, which found that this story is being closely followed by 19 percent of Americans.

Mr. ANDREW KOHUT (President, Pew Research Center for the People and the Press): And it seems low but it's right on course with the kind of interest we generally get with the Washington scandal stories.

PESCA: Pew has been surveying about public interests in Washington scandals for more than two decades - Whitewater, Newt Gingrich's book contract, the congressional check-cashing scandal. And on average, the current attorney general story is right in the middle in terms of public attention.

Interestingly, there seems to be no correlation between public interest and heads rolling. Some better-followed stories just faded away. Some more ignored stories like, say, Tom DeLay's indictment, had great legs. Here's what the public is telling pollsters like Andrew Kohut what they think about the controversy.

Mr. KOHUT: This is an important story but it's not a particularly interesting one.

PESCA: The result? People like Lina Alawalia Anderson(ph) feel a little news shame for not following things closer.

Ms. LINA ALAWALIA ANDERSON (Resident, New York): I heard about it but I would say I think I have passed it when I was looking at the newspaper and didn't read the article.

PESCA: You know what they found out about Anna Nicole Smith's death?

Ms. ANDERSON: I did.

PESCA: Which was what?

Ms. ANDERSON: A drug-overdose - chloral hydrate.

PESCA: Say what? What was the name of the chemical?

Ms. ANDERSON: Chloral hydrate.

PESCA: Yeah. So my question is - the fact that you know so much about Anna Nicole and not so much about Alberto Gonzales, rate your guilt.

Ms. ANDERSON: Very guilty.

PESCA: Journalist Ron Suskin thinks a cloudy-brained public may stiffen the spine of the president.

Mr. RON SUSKIN (Author, "The One Percent Doctrine"): And he made essentially see these poll numbers as an affirmation that George Bush's view of what's important is aligned with America's actual view and certainly not the view of the chattering class inside of Washington's Beltway.

PESCA: He may be right. The president never did give up the names of the members of Vice President Cheney's energy task force. But Leon Panetta, who was White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton, predicts that the president will ask Gonzales to resign. Panetta has experience in reading the public to judge how much leeway they give a president.

Mr. LEON PANETTA (Former White House Chief of Staff): My view as chief of staff was that if there is a problem and Congress is starting to pay attention to it, the press is starting and pay attention to it, the editorial writers are starting to pay attention to it, it's only a matter of time before it explodes on you. So it may be 16 percent, it may be 18 percent today so it may go up to 50 percent or it may go up even higher.

PESCA: Ron Suskin draws a different conclusion. He says that the White House will portray the story as a squabble that has little relevance to anyone outside the Beltway. Back at Bryant Park, Larry here, seemed onboard with that. Do you think Alberto Gonzales could win the MVP?

LARRY (Resident, New York): Yes, he could.

PESCA: He could. What do you think of his greatest strengths are? I mean, is he more - do you think him more as a power hitter or a guy who could, you know, field his position well?

LARRY: I know he can definitely field his position well. But he will be tested for the power here coming up this season.

PESCA: MVP or ex-AG? Either way, I wouldn't draft him in my rotisserie league.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

CHADWICK: Mike, as long as you tell the story, we'll pay attention. And DAY TO DAY continues.

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