Columnists on Gonzales, Continued Robert Siegel continues his conversation with political commentators E.J. Dionne and David Brooks about the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
NPR logo

Columnists on Gonzales, Continued

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/13978744/13978597" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Columnists on Gonzales, Continued

Columnists on Gonzales, Continued

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/13978744/13978597" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel back with David Brooks and E.J. Dionne. The subject is Alberto Gonzales.

E.J., before the break, I'd asked David about the fact that Alberto Gonzales was very high profile. I think the highest profile Latino appointee to a federal - or nominee to a federal office ever. And what, if anything, is the result of that? Do you see any positive gain for the Republicans here for having taken that step?

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Columnist, The Washington Post): You know, I was talking to someone this afternoon who is a regular watcher of Univision, the Spanish language television station, who noted that there was a trajectory here that when he started, there was great enthusiasm. A fellow Latino in the attorney general job, and by the end, the coverage was exactly the same and just as critical as the coverage elsewhere.

And as David said, I think this gets swamped by the immigration bill in terms of the effect on the Latino vote. You know - and I think Gonzales really hurt himself in a lot of these hearings. He said I don't know about what was happening in his own Justice Department about as often as I would say it if you ask me about particle physics. And so it wasn't just that he was somehow involved in these firings of U.S. attorneys for reasons we still don't fully understand, but his only defense was that he was detached. Which is why I think he lost a lot of the Republican's support, as David suggested, because he wasn't - he either wasn't engaged or was using that as a cover up. Neither works very well.

SIEGEL: He was not a very good witness…

Mr. DIONNE: Yes.

SIEGEL: …for his own case. Let's look to the future right now. As Nina Totenberg reported a few minutes ago, the name most mentioned today was that of Michael Chertoff, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. But he wasn't the only name mentioned. David Brooks, who are some possible attorney generals or attorneys general that you've heard about?

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (Columnist, The New York Times): Well, Mr. Clement, as Nina mentioned. Also, Oren Hatch. The senators mentioned - Larry Thompson, who is now, I think, at Pepsi, who worked at the Justice Department early in the Bush administration, who happens to be African American. These are the names thrown out. I'm not sure if they've gotten to the list. They probably have. But one of the debates that's already shaping is how political it should be. There's a general sense that the Justice Department has gotten way too political. And people are talking about the alternative. And the ideal figure is Ed Levi, who is attorney general under Gerald Ford, who is famously non-political.

But one thing to be said was - is that the big fights are going to be over executive privilege, as I said. And you've got to know Washington. You've got to know what buttons to push in order to defend the president against a hostile opposition Democratic Congress. And so someone who's totally academic is probably not going to be too successful. And I suspect the president won't pick that sort of person.

SIEGEL: On the other hand of it, someone who's academic, presumably, he would have written on the subject of executive privilege and might have some record to be gone after in confirmation hearings.

Mr. DIONNE: Well, there are…

Mr. BROOKS: I would say that, you know, to get things done in Washington - and this is something the Bush administration is very slow to learn - it really helps to pick somebody who's part of the establishment here, especially in the legal job, where you've got - where you know people personally and you know the propriety of how things get done. And that's something Gonzales, for all his niceness and all his skills, never really knew.

SIEGEL: E.J.

Mr. DIONNE: First all, there are academics and there are academics. And as Levi, the president, I should say, of the University of Chicago, David's College, was a very effective leader and he was very effective politically. So I think some academics are effective. But I think that if the president wants to avoid ongoing congressional hearings trying to figure out what happened in the Gonzales Justice Department, he's going to be much better off with a less political figure, somebody respected across party lines. Then if he nominates someone who clearly comes out of the Republican camp, then I think we simply go back to the same fight we were having the day before Alberto Gonzales left his job.

SIEGEL: Well, often, the last refuge of the president in trouble with the Senate is to nominate a senator or a former senator. And Oren Hatch has been mentioned.

Mr. DIONNE: Whose best friend in the Senate is Ted Kennedy, in some ways. So he clearly has some appeal across the aisle. So yes, certain senators could be very effective. Not all senators. We recall Senator Tower ran into a little trouble at the Defense Department. But Hatch would be a logical choice.

SIEGEL: When President Bush, David, says, as he did today, that this was a case of a good man who was dragged through the mud for political reasons, you see, being a devoted friend and sponsor to Alberto Gonzales on the day of his - the announcement of his retirement, his resignation, do you think that's the way president Bush actually saw this conflict between his attorney general and the Senate?

Mr. BROOKS: I'm sure he absolutely saw it that way. One of the things you notice about the Bush leadership style, whether it's with Gonzales or with the generals in Iraq. He looks at the quality of the character. And he says - if he says so and so is good man or a good woman, he will stick with that person through thick and thin without really reference to the positions that person has taken or the judgments they've made. He judges character, not the decisions that have been taken.

So if he's loyal to someone with good character, he will stay loyal to that person. I think that's been the case with Gonzales. Someone he and most other people generally think has very good character and is a good, nice person - a person you'd want to be around. And so I think that loyalty is real.

Nonetheless, I think there's a sense in the administration greater awareness over the past year or two that you really have to do business in Washington. And effectiveness really matters. And so they've gotten rid of a whole series of people, starting with Donald Rumsfeld, who have become ineffective in Washington.

SIEGEL: Last question to both of you. First, E.J., what, in balance, what do you think is the bottom line of the Gonzales era at the Department of Justice? Is it - was it an unusually unsuccessful tenure? Does it leave any dangerous residue for future attorneys general?

Mr. DIONNE: I think the answer is yes and yes. I think one of the most troubling things is how much more politicized this Justice Department seemed under Alberto Gonzales. The civil rights division, in every case involving reapportionment, made the decisions in ways that helped the Republican Party. All of these interests in voter fraud - where even studies by the Justice Department suggested this problem as exaggerated, in taking - making voter fraud a big issue is really a way of decreasing participation by groups that supported them across the lower income groups. And then these firings, which were still never adequately explained. So I think there's a huge problem here, and the civil liberties issues. You couldn't have this kind of partisanship. You shouldn't have had it over a question where you're balancing national security and civil liberties.

SIEGEL: David Brooks, what do you think is the bottom line here in the Gonzales (unintelligible)?

Mr. BROOKS: I'd say it was an exceptionally unsuccessful administration for the Justice Department. I would say the first thing that has to be done is I don't care if you're liberal or conservative, the quality of the people has to take a tick up. They lost some good people. He never really attracted the tippy top of the legal community. It's an extremely meritocratic profession. And it should be quite possible to get the best minds in there. Because it's a job a lot of people want. And he was notably unsuccessful of doing that.

SIEGEL: David Brooks of the New York Times, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, thanks to both of you for talking us today - with us today about the resignation announced by Alberto Gonzales.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.