NEAL CONAN, host:
This is Special Coverage from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
After months of controversy and criticism, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced his resignation today. Reaction to the news was sharply divided.
Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, blamed Gonzales and President Bush for what he called a severe crisis of leadership at the Justice Department.
Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky praised the attorney general and said, he hoped that whomever succeeds him will escape what he called the poisonous partisanship of the past eight months.
Over the next hour, we'll look at the controversies and the career of the country's first Hispanic attorney general about his legacy, possible replacements and reaction.
And we begin there with a statement that President Bush made earlier today at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: This morning, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced that he will leave the Department of Justice after two and a half years of service to the department. Al Gonzales is a man of integrity, decency and principle. And I have reluctantly accepted his resignation with great appreciation for the service that he has provided for our country.
As attorney general and, before that, as White House counsel, Al Gonzales has played a critical role in shaping our policies in the war on terror and has worked tirelessly to make this country safer. The Patriot Act, the Military Commissions Act and other important laws bear his imprint. Under his leadership, the Justice Department has made a priority of protecting children from Internet predators and made enforcement of civil rights laws a top priority. He aggressively and successfully pursued public corruption and effectively combated gang violence.
As attorney general, he played an important role in helping to confirm two fine jurists in Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito. He did an outstanding job as White House counsel, identifying and recommending the best nominees to fill critically important federal court vacancies.
Alberto Gonzales' tenure as attorney general and White House counsel is only part of a long history of distinguished public service that began as a young man when, after high school, he enlisted in the United States Air Force. When I became governor of Texas in 1995, I recruited him from one of Texas' most prestigious law firms to be my general counsel. He went on to become Texas' 100th secretary of state and to serve on our state's Supreme Court. In the long course of our work together, this trusted advisor became a close friend.
These various positions have required sacrifice from Al, his wife Becky, their sons Jared, Graham and Gabriel, and I thank them for their service to the country.
After months of unfair treatment that has created a harmful distraction at the Justice Department, Judge Gonzales decided to resign his position, and I accept his decision. It's sad that we live in a time when a talented and honorable person like Alberto Gonzales is impeded from doing important work because his good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons.
I've asked Solicitor General Paul Clement to serve as acting attorney general upon Alberto Gonzales' departure and until a nominee has been confirmed by the Senate. He's agreed to do so. Paul is one of the finest lawyers in America. As solicitor general, Paul has developed a reputation for excellence and fairness, and earned the respect and confidence of the entire Justice Department. Thank you.
CONAN: President Bush speaking earlier today at his Texas ranch on the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, which takes effect on September 17th.
We turn now to NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams who joins us here on Studio 3A. Welcome, Juan.
JUAN WILLIAMS: Good to be with you, Neal.
CONAN: And as we just heard, the president described his long relationship with his associate and friend, Alberto Gonzales. One of the president's most trusted advisers is leaving his administration.
WILLIAMS: Without a doubt. Remember, you heard the president mention the fact that Gonzales had served as the White House counsel before Harriet Miers, and you also should remember that President Bush wanted to put Alberto Gonzales on the Supreme Court. He couldn't get pass some of the strong conservatives in the administration who fought that. But that was his desire. He thought that much of him. Of course, he did put him on the Texas Supreme Court, as he also mentioned.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. And, of course, the two years as attorney general did prompt its - more than its share of controversies and political problems for the president, but he showed loyalty throughout. After calls for the resignation of the attorney general, the president repeatedly said, I will not ask him to step down.
WILLIAMS: No. And it wasn't in the president's political interest. I think sometimes we have to - with this relationship - somehow discern between personal loyalties and political loyalties. And clearly, the president felt that having a trusted figure like Alberto Gonzales over at the Justice Department was insulation.
Fred Fielding, who's the current White House counsel, was pretty much put in place to protect against the increased number of subpoenas that are going to the White House for several reasons - looking into Karl Roves involvement, if you recall, Scooter Libby's involvement in the Valerie Plame situation, looking into secrecy in the part of White House, especially the vice president's office. And then you come forward in terms of the investigations having to do with the firings of the prosecutors, the FBI's handling of some of these spy cases that has been botched and bumbled.
And so all of those subpoenas are kind of floating around out there. The question is how aggressive will the Justice Department be in going after these people. And the White House didn't want to have the risk of having someone who is going to be overly aggressive by way of trying to prove their independence acting as the attorney general.
So they wanted him there for a long time. And there're two ways of thinking about as we sit here this afternoon. One is that when Alberto Gonzales went home last week - he went home, he's on vacation - he's, really, he and his wife, made a decision that you know what, we're really taking a beating here. Your reputation is taking a beating. If you're going to have a job after this, you - it may be the time to leave now. And that's when he called the president on Friday, had lunch. The president invited him to Crawford to have lunch. Apparently, the president was not ready to accept that resignation. But after the lunch, the president gave the word that Alberto Gonzales had resigned and he had accepted that resignation.
CONAN: With reluctance, as he said. In a statement, the president said that Alberto Gonzales had endured months of unfair treatment. It's sad when a person with the talents of Alberto Gonzales is prevented from doing good work for political reasons and having his name dragged through the political mud for political purposes. Yet, by the end of his tenure as attorney general, the ranking member - ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, that's Senator Specter of Pennsylvania, all but accused Attorney General of lying in sworn testimony to the committee, repeatedly.
WILLIAMS: Yeah. I know. And there were no defenders. You know, you go around town and you're trying to find people who are willing to defend Alberto Gonzales, and they just, they were gone. And what was interesting to me is, you know, we've seen now a real rush to the door at the White House. Obviously, Karl Rove has announced his resignation, but you stop and think about Dan Bartlett leaving, and you…
CONAN: Communications director, yes.
WILLIAMS: Communications director. And then you stop and think, wait a second, it looks like, really, there's a changing of the guard. Josh Bolten, who's the White House chief of staff, has said he wants everybody who's going to leave to do so by Labor Day. But I think that this was a nudge in some ways to Alberto Gonzales to say, if you're going to make a move, make it now. Otherwise, I think the White House wanted him to stay in place.
CONAN: As you've suggested, though, there is an awful lot still waiting out there, stuff going back to this tenure as White House counsel in the dispute over the warrantless wiretaps, the torture memo - Guantanamo Bay, is in some respects the legacy of Alberto Gonzales.
WILLIAMS: Right, but the - and so the other way to think of this is, and this is what some people are saying as well, maybe these hearings and the subpoenas to Gonzales lose their power once he's gone as attorney general, because now, you're simply calling up someone who's a private citizen for things that happened in the past. And the same thing with Rove. Rove is gone now…
WILLIAMS: …so even as you subpoena Rove, it's as if you're going after a private citizen rather than the president's top political adviser. But, in fact, I think in many ways, what you're seeing is the White House, I think, a lot of top people saying, you know, now is the time to go in what is a very troubling period for this administration, beginning with the war in Iraq, but extending through some of these civil liberties questions.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. And, of course, the most recent issue and the one that may have cost him credibility with Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, the dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys around the country allegedly for political purposes. We'll hear more about that in a minute. But before we get there, Juan, the president did not announce today any plans to name a successor.
WILLIAMS: No, but there are a number of names floating around town. This morning, the big name was Mike Chertoff, who is over at Homeland Security. But then, it became sort of another wave of rumors which said, you know, remember Hurricane Katrina, something that we're going to commemorate the two-year anniversary of this week, and he had an involvement there, and so that might stir that up again. And then, the thought was what about people, like, who've been senators who could have an easier confirmation process. And the thought there went to people like Orrin Hatch, the senator from Utah, or John Danforth, the former senator from Missouri.
Also, the former deputy attorney general, Larry Thompson, now a vice president over at Pepsico, he's another possibility, and Chris Cox, who's now head of the Securities and Exchange Commission. So that's the range of personalities. But what we're looking at, Neal, is that if you nominate the wrong person, you could have real fireworks, because everything from spying to the firing of those prosecutors is going to be on the table, and there are going to be demands that the next attorney general demonstrate his independence, which is going to put the White House in a very awkward position.
CONAN: And independence that - we're talking earlier about loyalty, independence comes down to the crux of many of the problems that the Senate had with the attorney general. They viewed him as seeing himself as working for the president of the United States as opposed to working for the Constitution of the United States.
WILLIAMS: This is interesting because, historically, you think back to Bobby Kennedy and John Kennedy - that has always been a position where the White House wants to know that they have someone who's on their side, which is what of course, creates calls for special prosecutors, independent prosecutors. But in the case of Gonzales, I think this really rose to a new level, at least in this generation, because what you have were people saying and that, you know, he had demonstrated his loyalties to the president - it's what Hillary Clinton said today in releasing a statement, he demonstrated his loyalties, lied with the president and his political agenda, not the American people. Or I'm thinking about Chris Dodd, who said, I hope that in the future we'll have a attorney general who's truly, here I'm quoting, "truly independent and will guarantee reforms that restore and uphold the Constitution." I think they're saying a lot about the way they viewed Alberto Gonzales.
CONAN: Yeah, of course, both of them happen to be running for the presidential campaign of Democratic Party.
WILLIAMS: Nomination for the Democratic Party. Yeah. Exactly.
CONAN: We'll get two views of Alberto Gonzales' tenure and resignation in just a moment. And talk more with NPR's Juan Williams. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to Special Coverage from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. And you're listening to Special Coverage from NPR News.
The reaction today to Alberto Gonzales' resignation has been mixed. John Edwards, now running for the Democratic nomination for president, said simply, better late than never. On the other hand, Roy Blunt, the House Republican Whip, praised Gonzales for what he calls his deep commitment to public service. We'll talk more about today's reaction in a few minutes.
Juan Williams is with us, he's NPR senior correspondent. And joining us now is Bud Cummins, he is one of the eight fired U.S. attorneys. He served as U.S. attorney for eastern district of Arkansas from December 2001 to December 2006. And he's with us now on the line from Little Rock in Arkansas. Nice to have you on the program today.
Mr. BUD CUMMINS (Former U.S. Attorney, Arkansas): Thank you.
CONAN: And I wonder what came to your mind when you heard news of the attorney general's resignation this morning.
Mr. CUMMINS: I guess - maybe relief. It's been very - this whole episode has been a very painful for me, but it's been particularly painful for me to watch him continue to suffer the, you know, abuse and the criticism, which he kind of earned to a great extent, and, you know, to a great extent, it's part of the politics of Washington. But, you know, it's just gone on way too long and way past the point where he was able to effectively leave the department.
CONAN: In your case and in others, the accusation was that, you were let go for, well, particularly, in your case, to make room for a protege of Karl Rove.
Mr. CUMMINS: Yeah. But, you know, I got the job because I knew people and was politically connected. In my case, they handled it poorly and no president has ever decided to pull a U.S. attorney that was successfully performing to just give another, you know, to reward someone else with a job. But if it has been my case, I frankly don't think it would be a story. What's a lot more disturbing is the decision-making that, apparently, was behind the removal of many of the other U.S. attorneys, maybe all the other ones.
Especially, the - may be the clearest case, David Iglesias in New Mexico or John McKay in Washington, where the political pressure, based on very few facts, came to bear and the attorney general failed to insulate them from that political pressure and just allowed their removal based just on criticism from outside, you know, political quarters. And that is exactly what the attorney general's supposed to protect us from, is that outside political pressure, so we can pursue our cases in a neutral and nonpartisan way. And that's really, in my view, where he failed - the first place he failed horribly.
CONAN: We'll just to clarify. In many occasions, those allegations were that those attorneys were let go because they were insufficiently vigorous to pursue Democrats or maybe too vigorous in pursuing Republicans.
Mr. CUMMINS: Yeah, and I guess I have - I'm more skeptical about the part about too vigorous in pursuing Republicans, but, well, I have been, maybe these days, I'm not skeptical about anything. Yeah. Exactly. And I think it's clear that that happened. I think that there were criticisms about David Iglesias not bringing indictments before an election to help the Republicans in that election. I think there was criticism against John McKay for not indicting someone after a close governor's race in the state of Washington.
And, you know, the people that were making those criticisms were uninformed. There's so much that goes on that's secret, that's grand jury material. There's no way for Pete Domenici, for instance, to really have an informed opinion about whether David Iglesias was doing a good job in New Mexico. The person that had access to that information was Alberto Gonzales. And when those complaints came in, he could have gone internally and taken a look to see if there was a problem or somebody was falling down on the job or deviating from our policies and procedures, but they made no effort to do any legitimate investigation of performance review. They just responded purely to the political pressure and put those people's names on the list. (Unintelligible)
CONAN: And then said it was because of performance reasons.
Mr. CUMMINS: And - yeah, well, that would be the second, in my view, horrible thing that happened. Once they got caught, doing what they shouldn't have been doing, making these decisions for improper reasons, they were willing to throw these people, my colleagues, under the bus and said they had performance reasons, when it was really the farthest thing from the truth. And I think that was when they really nailed the coffin shut. If they did stopped when they -this first came to light and said, hey, we didn't intend for this process to work this way. We have allowed improper political considerations. This is not our brightest shining moment, we're going to fix it, this won't happen again. I think this story would have been over in February.
CONAN: What kind of legacy does Alberto Gonzales leave at the Justice Department?
Mr. CUMMINS: I think every cloud has a silver lining and he has actually probably done a good thing. He has taught us all, made us stop and relearn about the need for independent leadership at the Department of Justice. And the fact that the attorney general owes allegiance and loyalty to the president, it's true, but he also, he or she also has an independent duty to protect the integrity of the department, pursue cases in a neutral and nonpartisan fashion. And that's two hats that are very difficult to wear at times. And I guess when there's a conflict, the attorney general has to be independent. And that may cause hurt feelings between him or her and the president, but that's part of the job. And that's where Alberto Gonzales, obviously, just wasn't up to the job. He couldn't do it, didn't do it. And now, he is the one paying the price. Whoever had made these decisions, they've hung him out to dry and he's paying the price.
CONAN: Bud Cummins, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.
Mr. CUMMINS: Thank you.
CONAN: Bud Cummins served as U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Arkansas from December 2001 to December 2006. He joined us on the line today from Little Rock in Arkansas.
With us from his office here in Washington D.C. is Noel Francisco. He served as deputy assistant attorney general and White House associate counsel during President Bush's first term. And it's nice of you to join us as well.
Mr. NOEL FRANCISCO (Former Deputy Assistant Attorney General): Glad to be here.
CONAN: And, of course, you were in that job, particularly, an associate of Alberto Gonzales. And I wondered what your thoughts were when you heard news of his resignation earlier.
Mr. FRANCISCO: Well, you know, I was saddened to hear that he'd be stepping down. Attorney General Gonzales is a man who's devout, who's devoted his entire career to public service. I think he's done the country a great service during these last seven years. People have to remember that Attorney General Gonzales served in the White House and in the Department of Justice during perhaps, one of the most turbulent times in modern American history, where the United States was forced to respond to the worst American attack, the worst attack on American soil in history. It called for a robust response, a response that -where we reversed the prior mindset of erring on the side of not pursuing vigorous protections to the American homeland. And in turn, erring on the side of making sure that we were engaging in these vigorous protections of the homeland.
Attorney General Gonzales, as the White House counsel and attorney general, understood that these were very controversial positions that he had to take, but nonetheless, took them because those were the actions that were necessary in order to safeguard our homeland. He took - he staked out the controversial positions and he defended them. And unfortunately now, he's paying the price.
CONAN: He was also among the exponents - even independent of the attacks of 9/11, an exponent of expanded presidential powers. That presidential power had been eroded over the years, and saw many of the more controversial actions of the Bush administration, indeed, as statements of presidential authority.
Mr. FRANCISCO: Well, what he has done is he has, throughout his tenure, vigorously defended the prerogatives of the executive branch. And, bear in mind, these are positions that every administration in modern times has taken. It's just that most other administrations had compromised them in one way or another. What this president and what Attorney General Gonzales and White House counsel Gonzales decided to do, was to not compromise those positions as much, and instead, defend them vigorously, not for the benefit just of this president, but for the benefit of future presidents to come.
CONAN: What did you make of his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee after the long and involved process of looking into the dismissals of the eight U.S. attorneys, the questions about the warrantless wiretaps, and who said what to whom at that meeting at the hospital where, John Ashcroft, the then-attorney general, was asked to renew things. Toward the end of his tenure, many of the Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee did not believe he was telling them the truth.
Mr. FRANCISCO: Well, look, I think that Gonzales and the Department of Justice had been candid in conceding that their positions on these various issues weren't explained as well as they could have been. But what I think the more important issue is the one that gets lost in all of this back and forth. It's the need to stake out the larger positions that advanced the agenda to protect the homeland and to advance the president's important initiatives against terrorism and related issues.
Sure, they could have done a better job of articulating it. But what is - the criticism that we've seen leveled against Gonzales, I think, is really a result of the fact that Gonzales' critics in Congress don't gain any traction when they try to criticize the substance of the anti-terror policy, as opposed to picking on the details of how its explained.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. And, as we look ahead to the possibilities that may come, in terms of the president's thoughts on a nominee, I wonder what your thoughts are.
Mr. FRANCISCO: The name that you hear a lot is Michael Chertoff and I think he'd be an excellent pick. He's somebody that's got a lot of experience in the Executive Branch. He's also somebody that had a lot of experience in the Department of Justice and so could step in to the Department of Justice and take things over pretty quickly, he wouldn't take a lot of time to get up to speed.
There are a couple of other really good names I hear floating around. One is Larry Thompson, the former deputy attorney general and the other is Judge Larry Silverman, who's currently a senior judge on the D.C. circuit. And even of none of that worked out, the existing acting attorney general, Paul Clement, is a man whose integrity is beyond reproach and who would do an extraordinary job in guiding the Department of Justice through the rest of this administration.
WILLIAMS: Mr. Francisco, this is Juan Williams. I just wondered if you had a sense of why now. You know, given all that he'd been through, all you described, the tumult, the beatings he's been taking, why did he decide to go now?
Mr. FRANCISCO: Well, that's a very good question. I think that it may be something as simple as, after seven years of going through this, the man's exhausted. And, he, over the course of the summer, he had a chance to take stock of things, take stock of his life, take stock of the job, to talk with his family about what was best for them. And he decided that on balance. He'd done what he came to do. There wasn't a whole lot more that he could accomplish. And it was time for him to step down.
CONAN: One final question, Noel Francisco, and that is that, there are critics who say that he leaves the Justice Department where morale is at historic lows, down to Watergate-level lows. Is that a fair criticism do you think?
Mr. FRANCISCO: Well, I think it's fair to say that as a result of all of the various congressional investigations, morale is not a high level. But the professionals in the Department of Justice have been through things like this before. And I have no doubt that they're going to be able to handle the issues that come with great professional attitude.
CONAN: Noel Francisco, thanks very much for your time.
Mr. FRANCISCO: My pleasure.
CONAN: Noel Francisco is deputy assistant to Attorney General and White House associate counsel during President Bush's first term. He's now in private practice at the Washington law firm, Jones Day.
I'm Neal Conan along with Juan Williams, NPR senior correspondent. We're looking back at the career and the legacy of Alberto Gonzales who announced his resignation as attorney general earlier today.
If you'd like to join our conversation, give us a phone call, 800-989-8255. You can also be with us by e-mail, and that address is email@example.com. And you're listening to Special Coverage, which is coming to you from NPR News.
With us now on the line from Austin, Texas is Bill Minutaglio. He has written biographies of both Alberto Gonzales and President Bush. And thanks for taking the time to be with us today.
Mr. BILL MINUTAGLIO (Author, "The President's Counselor: The Rise to Power of Alberto Gonzales"): It's good to be with you.
CONAN: And again, the world loyalty comes up. It seemed to have operated both ways in this long-running relationship and long-running friendship.
Mr. MINUTAGLIO: George W. Bush is fiercely loyal to his close friends. And Alberto Gonzales has been, you know, almost his little brother, in a sense. There had been folks in the Justice Department who have referred to Gonzales as the little brother of the President. And I think, you know, there have been almost a betting pool in Texas to see whether or not Gonzales would stay to the very last day, and actually, you know, leave the White House, in a sense, or leave Washington with the President. And I'd say that some folks here in Texas are actually surprised that Gonzales, you know, has left.
CONAN: Let me just echo Juan Williams' most recent question to Noel Francisco, why now?
Mr. MINUTAGLIO: I think it was really a politically untenable situation. And I think once Karl Rove left, it opened the floodgates in some way and it paved the way and made it easier for Gonzales to do what I think he thought was best for President Bush. And, you know, that harks back to the dilemma that has always swirled around Gonzales whether he was always guilty, in a sense, of wearing two hats at the same time. The hat that said, you know, I'm fiercely loyal to my friend, George W. Bush, and the other hat saying that I'm a servant of the people. I think this decision is extremely political in the sense that I think he decided it's best for the legacy, the remaining months of my friend, George W. Bush's presidency, for me to leave.
CONAN: As we've heard in the president's comments earlier today, their relationship obviously goes back to Texas. And, Gonzales, I guess, owes his entire public career to the Bush family.
Mr. MINUTAGLIO: Well, absolutely. In 1994, George W. Bush essentially made Alberto Gonzales an offer he couldn't refuse, as it's been said in Texas, to come join them. And not just to join them as a member of the governor's staff, he joined George W. Bush with the full understanding that, really, the train had already left the station for a run for the presidency, and that Gonzales was going to be aboard for the long haul. And, yeah, absolutely every real public moment in Alberto Gonzales' life he owes to George W. Bush. And I'd say both the good moments and the bad moments.
CONAN: And that extraordinary public story of the young man who joined the Air Force and worked his way through law school and then became the, you know, sat on the Texas Supreme Court, became the first Hispanic attorney general of the United States, and was, as Juan mentioned earlier, under a consideration to be appointed to the United States Supreme Court.
Mr. MINUTAGLIO: It's actually - you know, (unintelligible) from how you feel about him politically, whether you're a Chuck Schumer or George W. Bush, you would have to admit at one point that his story had a great American dream arc, a true Horatio Alger story. It harked back to Senator Kennedy saying during the confirmation hearings for attorney general, his wry comment was that, I wish that I could vote for the story, rather than the man himself. His story is one of authentic success. He grew up impoverished in a house with no hot running water, no telephone and succeeded enormously. Albeit with someone there helping to open the window, open the door, and that being George W. Bush.
CONAN: And though there had been a lot of allegations over his time in Washington, including allegations involving his integrity, those speak to his -the veracity of his statements before Congress, there's never been any allegation that he's ever tried to enrich himself in this role.
Mr. MINUTAGLIO: No. Though some friends here, during a research for my book, told me that you should always, always, always weigh Alberto Gonzales through the prism of his upbringing, that he really single-mindedly wanted to put a great deal of distance between himself and his impoverished past. And that, you know, his quest for success entailed, you know, personal enrichment in the sense that he wanted to become a top flight corporate attorney in Houston. It was always questing to move higher and higher in social strata and do better. And, though there's been no, you know, overt evidence at all that he's tried to profit from public service, I think he saw it as another notch in his growth and development in climbing up that social ladder.
CONAN: And we just have a few seconds with you left, but would you expect at this point for him to return to Texas and corporate law?
Mr. MINUTAGLIO: I would absolutely see that. I think for a while - before he was really put under the glare and, you know, kind of caught up in this swirl of the political machinations over the last year - in Washington, I think there was a plan, and perhaps a Karl Rove-orchestrated plan to have Gonzales come back to Texas and run for higher office here. I don't know if that exists anymore, so I could very easily see him going back to the comfortable world of corporate law in Texas.
CONAN: Bill Minutaglio, thank you very much for your time.
Mr. MINUTAGLIO: It's been my pleasure.
CONAN: Bill Minutaglio is the author of "The President's Counselor: The Rise to Power of Alberto Gonzales," and of "First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty." He now teaches Journalism at the University of Texas.
We'll continue with more in just a few moments. You're listening to Special Coverage from NPR News in Washington.
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CONAN: This is Special Coverage from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced earlier today that he plans to resign. His resignation will be effective on the 17th of September. The Solicitor General Paul Clement will serve as acting attorney general until such time as a replacement for Alberto Gonzales is nominated and confirmed by the United States Senate.
With me here in the studio is Juan Williams, NPR senior correspondent. Joining us now, also, is Daniel Metcalfe, a former attorney at the Justice Department who resigned in 2007, who served under 13 attorneys general in various roles in that office. Very nice of you to be with us today, Mr. Metcalfe.
Mr. DANIEL METCALFE (Retired Justice Department Attorney; Director, Center on Government Secrecy): Thank you. But who's counting, right?
CONAN: Who's counting…
Mr. METCALFE: Probably, I have to technically make a slight correction. I didn't resign. I retired.
CONAN: Retired. Okay.
Mr. METCALFE: Yes. It felt like a resignation in some aspects, but no, I retired.
CONAN: If listeners would like to join our conversation about the career and legacy of Alberto Gonzales, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Our e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
But let me ask you Daniel Metcalfe, did Alberto Gonzales leave the Justice Department better than when he found it?
Mr. METCALFE: No. I don't think anyone could reasonably maintain such a position. As a matter of fact, I think it's fair to say that - especially given the events of the last six, eight months or so - he left at far worse than any attorney general in recent memory. And when I say recent memory, I go back to the Watergate times. I was there as law clerk at the time of what's called the Saturday Night Massacre of 1973. And I saw the tremendous damage that was done at the department when Attorney General Saxby came in in 1974. And during that period of time, I think, it's fair to say that the damage that was done by Attorney General Gonzales to the department and to morale, in particular, is worse than even during that time.
CONAN: And you attribute the damage to Attorney General Gonzales as opposed to as some of his defenders have said earlier in this program to the investigations of his office by Democrats in Congress.
Mr. METCALFE: Well, certainly part of the damage is the fact that there was an attorney general who was - someone who spawned such investigations. But I'm talking about damage to department's credibility, to its adherence to the rule of law, to its standing in the law enforcement community. To have an attorney general who could barely remember anything at a congressional hearing and had seemed very much like an empty suit or a cipher, and who acquitted himself so poorly time and again on Capitol Hill. That was tremendously embarrassing to the department and to its employees as well.
CONAN: We heard criticisms from the - many of the dismissed U.S. attorneys, all of them, originally, of course, have been appointed under Republican presidents, under George W. Bush. These were Republican loyalists from the get-go, highly critical of Attorney General Gonzales.
Mr. METCALFE: I'm not surprised of that personally, because the concern in their case is not simply that they were dumped on us, so to speak, this past December. It's how the department handled or mishandled the appraise key, so to speak, in January, by scrambling to find derogatory information about them to justify the (unintelligible) basis of their removal. David Iglesias, who I know was on with me earlier today, is a perfect example of the case in point, in that he was actually criticized after his removal as an absentee landlord.
He, in fact, was in the Army Reserves and that was why he wasn't in the office, perhaps everyday. And this - from a Justice Department where they've had many U.S. attorneys who have been dual-heading, so to speak, including just recently the acting deputy attorney general who was dual-heading as a U.S. attorney as well for a while. I think those U.S. attorneys have much to be aggrieved about, especially because how their good names were muddied both during the process and after the process as well.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Juan Williams?
WILLIAMS: Dan, you know, one thing that strikes me as the attorney general leaves is the fact that the leadership of the department has been hallowed out, that you'd have so few people now. Just last week, the head of the civil rights division left. You know, people like the deputy attorney general, all those positions just as seemed as if they have nobody in them right now and people unwilling to take those jobs. What do we likely to see with an appointment of a replacement for Alberto Gonzales?
Mr. METCALFE: Well, first, I think, one, the phrase hallowed out is a very apt one here. This is virtually unprecedented in the department's history in that you'll have now an acting attorney general and solicitor general Paul Clement. You'll have an acting solicitor general behind him perhaps. You certainly have an acting deputy attorney general. I believe you now have an acting associate attorney general. And then if you look at the positions down the line in the litigating divisions, you have some who recently left the civil rights division, and some who recently left the tax division, and the Office of Legal Policy - there was a departure there, the Office of Legislative Affairs. There are several vacancies to say the least.
WILLIAMS: Well, it's seems unprecedented to me.
Mr. METCALFE: I think it's fair to say that. I think it's fair to say that the department now numerically has hit a higher vacancy rate than ever before including Watergate days.
WILLIAMS: And that's because of Gonzales, you believe?
Mr. METCALFE: I believe it's because of not only what Gonzales allowed to happen in December with the removal of the U.S. attorneys, but more importantly, with how he handled it beginning in January of this year up through his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in July.
WILLIAMS: One last point here, which is that when President Bush made a statement today in accepting the resignation, he talked about some of the good things that Alberto Gonzales did. And the list included participating in the writing of the Patriot Act, his handling of terrorism, stopping child pornography in the country, civil rights, aggressive pursuit of public corruption, gang violence, confirmation of two people to the Supreme Court -Roberts and Alito. Would you agree with that as a list of the good that Alberto Gonzales did?
Mr. METCALFE: I think I would readily agree, and most other people in the department. Even long-term career people would readily agree that there are some good things there. But it's not even a matter of the glass being half empty versus half full. I think the glass is only partially full there because there is so many negatives associated with Attorney General Gonzales' appearance before the Congress this year and the way that he handled or mishandled so many things with contradictory statements and faulty recollections, or total inexplicable lack of recollections.
Simply put, I think his personal credibility and the department's credibility by extension have been very, very deeply - very much in question or in serious doubt here. And that's why we need, I say, a Watergate-style repair at this point. We need a new attorney general who can restore the department's credibility, it's adherence to the rule of law, a public confidence in its ability in the evenhanded administration of justice. Frankly, we need someone like we had in 1975 when Attorney General Ed Levi came in at the beginning of the Ford administration.
CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation, 800-989-8255. E-mail is email@example.com. Just to remind you, our guests are Daniel Metcalfe, an attorney who served at the Justice Department for many years before his retirement in 2007, and NPR's senior correspondent, Juan Williams.
Let's begin with Rosemary(ph), Rosemary's calling us from Princeton, New Jersey.
ROSEMARY (Caller): Good afternoon. I wondered - following on your point about public confidence - what Mr. Metcalfe and Juan would think about this Congress, the 110th, given what we seen of them already, what their appetite might be for refusing to confirm anyone until the White House answers all the subpoenas that has, you know, that have been requested?
CONAN: Yes, Senator Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, just last week holding a news - coming down from a vacation in Vermont, held a news conference to say that those papers were outstanding and, in fact, that they were - contempt was in the air, Juan Williams.
WILLIAMS: Well, you know Senator Schumer's said today and here I'm quoting, "you know, we Democrats employ to work with us," he's saying this, speaking to President Bush, "don't choose the path of confrontations, throw down the gauntlet, we're willing to meet you in the middle. All we seek is that you choose somebody who puts the rules of law first. We're not looking a confrontation here." Well, in the way, he is signaling that he's willing to have the fight. And I don't think, though, that they're willing to go so far as to say, unless you deal with the subpoenas, we will not confirm an attorney general.
ROSEMARY: That's too bad.
WILLIAMS: But, well - you know, the possibility is, let's say that they went so far as to nominate someone like Ted Olsen, the former solicitor general, a very strong conservative who would take the bait in the way that Robert Bork would, you know, force a confrontation. I think all you'd get is fireworks. And already, you know, the president's standing, the Congress is standing as solo. I don't think that the Democrats would see that it was in their best interest to do that.
ROSEMARY: I just wonder why the Democrats don't inflate their low - the Congress rather, rate of approval at 14 with just this kind of unwillingness to really stand up because, you know - I mean, we have just had hideous event after hideous event and there seems to be, you know, this kind of tepid response which is, you know, don't make us confront you. I think at some point the American people are hoping that someone will say enough is enough. It's not to, quote your - the title of your book.
(Soundbite of laughter)
WILLIAMS: Thank you. Thank you.
ROSEMARY: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Rosemary.
Daniel Metcalfe, I wanted to ask you about this. There are all of these legacies of Alberto Gonzales, these subpoenas for one thing. This is going to take quite a while to settle out.
Mr. METCALFE: I think that's certainly true with respect to the pending subpoenas and the conflict between the executive and the legislative branch right now. I know that Senator Leahy, with support from Senator Specter, has made very strong statements from the Senate Judiciary Committee. But a lot of the observation that it's a one thing for them to say that they won't confirm a lesser appointee, it would be another thing to them to say that they wouldn't confirm the head of the agency. And I suspect that they would apply a different standard to an attorney general nominee.
Now, that said, I think so much will hinge on the type of nominee that President Bush sends up there. Whether it'll be someone designed to ease through, much in the same way that Senator Saxby was nominated by President Nixon in a spring - late winter spring of 1974. He was a member of the club, so to speak, not only having been a senator but having been a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Now, there are two names that readily come to mind now, that'll be Senator Hatch, who's a pending member - current member of the Senate Judiciary Committee…
CONAN: And former chairman.
Mr. METCALFE: …and former chairman to sure, and certainly Senator Danforth, former member of Congress. They as, quote, unquote, "members of the club" might ease through. And if President Bush were to nominate one of them, I think that would signal an intention on his part to avoid that sort of controversy. If on the other hand the nominee were someone like DHS Secretary Chertoff, that would be a whole different matter and quite controversial, indeed, I suspect.
CONAN: Daniel Metcalfe, a former attorney at the Justice Department and NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams.
You're listening to Special Coverage from NPR News.
And let's see if we can get Norma(ph) on the line, and Norma is with from Reading in Massachusetts.
NORMA (Caller): Hello. Thank you for taking my call.
NORMA: I feel I am being denied the right on an investigation of the enforcement of the rule of law and upholding our Constitution. By nothing being done he would become a private citizen and he can't be touched. Also, I really feel that our Congress has to put the good of our country with the people above their desire to - you know, reelected or stay in office for the presidency. We need some real courage at this time. And thank you for taking my call.
CONAN: Norma, thanks very much for the call.
And Juan Williams, as you were saying earlier the fact that he is now going to be private citizen does not prevent the judiciary committees in either the House or the Senate from continuing to pursue some of these issues and, indeed, call for perjury investigations.
WILLIAMS: Well, that's right. And there's no reason. And so I take - it's almost like Norma's - I feel talking to the American press. Because the idea is that the press would say, oh, well, gee wiz, he's no longer attorney general, gee wiz, Karl Rove is no longer the president's top adviser, so therefore, any kind of subpoena really looses steam, and we're not going to pay as much as attention. But I think here there really is a call to say, don't take the bait, American press, got to stay on this case. And so, Norma, I think people are hearing you.
CONAN: Let's go now to John(ph), John's with us from Chicago.
JOHN (Caller): Ah, yes sir. I'm just wondering what everybody there would think of Fitzgerald here from Chicago being the next attorney general? (Unintelligible).
CONAN: Patrick Fitzgerald the U.S. attorney in Chicago, of course, was the special prosecutor brought in to investigate the case of Scooter Libby, the vice president's chief of staff who was found guilty of obstruction of justice and lying to a grand jury.
CONAN: Is the name of Patrick Fitzgerald likely to come up you think, Juan Williams?
WILLIAMS: It already came up, Senator Durban.
(Soundbite of laughter)
WILLIAMS: Senator Durban mentioned this.
CONAN: A Democratic, of course, from Illinois mentioning that. But, would a Republican mention it?
WILLIAMS: No. I don't think so. I think there are a lot of hurt feelings, you know. Remember Scooter Libby has been - commuted his sentence, and even can still - under consideration for pardon in that. They were not pleased with what Patrick Fitzgerald did.
Mr. METCALF: By the same token, I can add that from the other perspective, I think, certainly, he would be an outstanding choice for attorney general and it would say much about President Bush if he were to nominate someone like that. But I have to agree with Juan that it's not very likely for that same reason.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, John.
JOHN: Thank you.
Before we let you go, let us consider the legacy of Alberto Gonzales. This, apparently an end at least to this phase that anybody can see of his public life. So, were talking about his career as White House counsel, the controversies over the torture memo, the holding of detainees including an American citizen incommunicado for several years - a lot of these decisions, and of course the wireless wire taps, and the controversies that he encountered that we've been talking about at the Justice Department.
Daniel Metcalfe, what do you think he's going to be remembered for?
Mr. METCALFE: I think he's going to be remembered more than anything else for his shameful and shameless performances on Capitol Hill one after the other, after the other on the House side and twice on the Senate side, most recently in July. I think he hit a standard lower than ever has been hit before. I think he sunk below Watergate depths if that's apt the metaphor. And I tell you this, we used to have - on the seventh floor of the Justice Department before a recent renovation - an area where attorney general portraits hung.
Now, every attorney general you might know has his or her own portrait - official portrait prepared and it's distributed around the department. Janet Reno, for example, used to have Bobby Kennedy's portrait hanging in her office. Well, we had one wall on the seventh floor that was called the wall of shame, believe it or not, where the portraits of, let's just say, problem-ridden attorneys general hung. Well, I would dare say that there would have to be a separate wall unto itself now for an attorney general who acquitted himself so poorly time and time again on Capitol Hill, and called the department's integrity and credibility and stature into such serious question.
CONAN: Juan Williams, how will Alberto Gonzales be remembered?
WILLIAMS: I don't think he can get away from that performance on the Hill that Daniel was just talking about where he kept saying, I can't recall, I don't remember, and even with the suggestion that he was coaching one of his former aides as to how to testify. But, you know, I think it's also the case that people will remember the fact that he's Hispanic, the first Latino to serve as attorney general of the United States. He will certainly be recalled as President Bush's good friend. I'm afraid he can't get away from that late night visit to his predecessor John Ashcroft's hotel room with Andy Carter apparently trying to…
CONAN: Hospital room, yeah.
WILLIAMS: Hospital room, trying to pressure the former attorney general to give his permission for that kind of activity. So, that's the legacy and it's one possibility that he decided that now is the time to go because his reputation would suffer even more damage if he was to stay until the very end.
CONAN: NPR senior correspondent, Juan Williams, who joined us here in studio 3A. Thanks as always, Juan.
WILLIAMS: You're welcome.
CONAN: And our thanks as well to Daniel Metcalfe, former director of the office of information privacy at the Department of Justice, executive director of the center for government Center for Government Secrecy at the American University Washington College of Law. We appreciate your time.
Mr. METCALFE: Pleased to be with you.
CONAN: We'll have more on the resignation of Alberto Gonzales and the talk about a possible successor later today on NPR News.
This has been Special Coverage. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
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