Political Corner: Gonzales

What fate awaits Attorney General Alberto Gonzales as his former staffers testify (or decline to testify) on Capitol Hill? A Democratic strategist, Donna Brazile, and a Republican strategist, the Rev. Joseph Watkins, talk with Juan Williams.

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TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox and this is NEWS & NOTES.

It's Thursday, and that means it's time to check in with NPR's Juan Williams for the week's news from Washington.

JUAN WILLIAMS: We're joined by Donna Brazile. Ms. Brazile was Al Gore's campaign manager in 2000. She now runs her own political consulting firm in Washington, D.C. And also with us this week, Reverend Joseph Watkins, a member of a government relations group at Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney. Reverend Watkins was a member of the first President Bush's White House staff. Donna and Joe, thanks for joining us.

Ms. DONNA BRAZILE (Founder, Brazile & Associates): Thank you, Juan.

Reverend Joseph Watkins (Government Relations Group, Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney): Thanks, Juan.

WILLIAMS: Let's talk about the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales. There's been a series of controversial statements made by Alberto Gonzales about whether he knew about the dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys around the country. Alberto Gonzales initially said he didn't know, then it's come out that he was involved in a meeting 10 days before their dismissal in which those dismissals were discussed.

In addition, Alberto Gonzales is now in a position where it seems as if most of the Republican leaders in the Senate have decided that his credibility should be called into question. Joe Watkins, do you expect Alberto Gonzales to be gone shortly?

Rev. WATKINS: Well, Alberto Gonzales, like every other attorney general before him, works at the pleasure of the president of the United States. And as long as the president wants Alberto Gonzales there and Alberto Gonzales wants to serve in that position, I think he'll be there.

I was an appointee. I worked in the White House for the first President Bush. I served at the pleasure of the president of the United States and I did my job, I worked hard. But I also always realized every single day that I showed for work that I worked at the pleasure of the president of United States.

WILLIAMS: Well, but Joe, in this case, it's a situation where, as the attorney general of the United States, he also has to to some extent represent the people of the United States and the justice system, wouldn't you agree?

Rev. WATKINS: Yes, but this is not unusual for U.S. attorneys to be let go when the administrations change, even in midterm. When Bill Clinton became president of the United States in January of 1993 and Janet Reno was appointed to be attorney general of the United States, they let all 93 U.S. attorneys go in one full swoop.

WILLIAMS: Donna Brazile, in fact, Alberto Gonzales has said this is an overblown personnel matter. It seems as if it's much more than that now, but that's the line that Joe Watkins is pursuing. What do you think?

Ms. BRAZILE: Well, first of all, no one is questioning the right of this president or any president to nominate all U.S. attorneys. Look, there's been a lot of political manipulation over the last couple of months. They first called it an overblown personnel matter, and then they changed that story and said that it was because some of the U.S. attorneys were not performing up to par.

So we've heard conflicting evidence, conflicting statements, and it's time that we get to the bottom of it. Bill Clinton, like every other president who comes in from a different political party, dismissed all of the U.S. attorneys; that's his right. These U.S. attorneys were dismissed in the middle of the presidential term after an evaluation system was designed that essentially ranked people based on their loyalty to the president, not adherent to the rule of law.

So I think one of the reasons why this president and this attorney general now is in a lot of hot water is because they have not told the truth. They have not come forward to say why they dismissed some of these prosecutors. And until we get to the bottom of it, until members of Congress are able to hear the testimony, I have every reason to suspect there was a little hanky-panky going on.

So I think the sooner the president gets this behind him, the better our country will be, our system of justice, the rule of law. And perhaps he needs to find a new attorney general, somebody who doesn't have the stink that this one has in terms of this controversy and scandal.

WILLIAMS: Wow, the stink. Well, what about that, Joe Watkins. Do you think that in fact as a matter of loyalty, Alberto Gonzales, the attorney general, might simply say, you know what, it's in the best interest of the president for me to depart?

Rev. WATKINS: Well, he has always been a loyal member of the president's team. When he was working for him when the president was governor of Texas and certainly at the White House and now as the attorney general of the United States, he has done I think a very, very good job, and at the same time maintained a proper sense of loyalty to the president of the United States, the person at whose pleasure he works.

At the same time, this is really a loss for the country more than anything else. This is distracting from the huge challenges that we face as a country and it ends up being a little more than a partisan victory for the time being for Democrats, which really doesn't help anybody. Because at some point, if and when Democrats return to the White House, they'll be faced with the same issues of appointing people and firing people.

And then, of course, we get into the old game of quid pro quo, you know, we'll you did this to us back in 1994, we're going to do to this to you in 2007. And if you ever gain a control, we're going to do this to you. We're going to examine every one of the firings that you make of appointed personnel.

We know that personnel come and go, and that the people that are appointed by presidents and by attorneys general and by various other members of the Cabinet work at the pleasure of those Cabinet members, and that of course now the Democrats have seized on the opportunity to make this into a highly political issue and to try to leave egg the face of certainly Alberto Gonzales and the administration.

Ms. BRAZILE: Well, Joe, if it's a political issue, then it was a gift from the Republicans who, first of all, could have just handled this like any other professional, competent team. But instead they made it out to be a personnel issue and then later said it was because of poor performances.

Now when these U.S. attorneys, they are not Democrats, they are Republicans, came back and said, wait a minute, I just received a good performance review. Even Patrick Fitzgerald, who just prosecuted Scooter Libby, also had a bad so-called review.

I'm not sitting here defending Bill Clinton, I'm sitting here saying that our criminal justice system, the top law enforcement officer should be out there protecting and upholding the rule of law. Now he has ruined - this whole process has ruined the careers of good prosecutors. We've interfered with the criminal justice process and then tried to cover it up when they got caught.

Now the only thing I'm saying is that everyone should be held accountable for their actions. When Bill Clinton was in office, the Republicans who were in charge, they held his officials to accountability. They had to go up and testify. Harold Ickes, the former deputy chief of staff, George Stephanopoulos, they all had to go before the Congress.

Rev. WATKINS: I guess, at the end of the day, U.S. attorneys will, in this administration and the future administrations, of course will be appointed and will be dismissed. And there never is much happiness with anybody being dismissed. Nobody, of course, wants to be fired. Nobody wants to be let go. But there was nothing wrong with the replacement of these eight U.S. attorneys. The biggest challenge becomes now in the reporting process, and my sense of that is that it will be cleared.

WILLIAMS: On last thing for the two of you before you go. Ruben Navarrette, a columnist out west, Hispanic, has been making the case that there is condescension from liberals and from Democrats, Donna Brazile, in their urgency to get rid of Alberto Gonzales, the first Hispanic attorney general.

He says Republicans deserve some credit for putting a Hispanic person in as attorney general. None were appointed as to the Supreme Court by Democrats or put in the position of being attorney general.

And Alberto Gonzales says that it's as if they don't - I'm sorry, Ruben Navarrette says it's as if they don't even appreciate the importance that Alberto Gonzales holds as a Hispanic role model. What do you say?

Ms. BRAZILE: He is a role model. But that shouldn't cover up the fact that, under his leadership, we now have an administration that is, you know, more susceptible to torture, that has eroded our civil liberties, the FBI going beyond the letter of the law, looking into private files of American citizens. So this is not about his race or his ethnic background, this is about his record in office, and he should be held accountable just like any other American who hold that position.

WILLIAMS: Joe Watkins?

Rev. WATKINS: Well, clearly Alberto Gonzales is a wonderful role model. He's got a great story, and it's unfortunate that he's coming under such fire right now for something that is so routine in administrations. But my sense of it all is that he'll be cleared and he'll continue to be the great role model that he is to all Americans, and certainly to Americans of Hispanic descent.

WILLIAMS: Joe Watkins is a member of the government relations group at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney. He was a member of the first President Bush's White House staff. And Donna Brazile, who was campaign manager for Al Gore in 2000, she now runs her own political consulting firm here in Washington.

Donna, Joe, thanks so much for joining us on Political Corner.

Ms. BRAZILE: Thank you, Juan.

Rev. WATKINS: Thanks for having us, Juan.

COX: NPR's Juan Williams joins us with national political news every Thursday right here on Political Corner.

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