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Shields and Brooks Discuss Gonzales Resignation

August 27, 2007 at 6:25 PM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: Now to the political, the Gonzales resignation as seen by Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

David, timing, everything is timing. A few weeks ago, we saw Karl Rove take his leave, and now we see Alberto Gonzales. Does that have anything to do with anything?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: It’s August. They want to get back to Texas before the temperature dips below 100. I suspect, with Gonzales’ case, there’s been a gathering sense that he couldn’t do the job. And by doing the job, I think there’s a gathering sense even among Republicans he couldn’t represent the administration in combats with Congress over executive power because he was regarded as uncredible and not competent.

And so I suspect, as with Donald Rumsfeld, there was a gathering series of criticism, decision he needed to go, and they were just waiting for a moment when nobody was calling for his resignation so they could do it on their own initiative.

GWEN IFILL: Did the attorney general have any defenders left, Mark, not that you were looking for them, but were there any?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: He really didn’t. And Alberto Gonzales started with a constituency of one: That one was George W. Bush who plucked from a Houston law firm, made him his counsel as governor of Texas, where he was best known for green-lighting 50-plus executions that made Texas the capital punishment headquarters of the world.

Then he went on the Texas Supreme Court, again, the president. Then he came to Washington as White House counsel, again, the president, and was even mentioned seriously for the Supreme Court. I mean, he was on the short list at one point — we have to remember that — and then became attorney general.

All the president — and I think ultimately his downfall was that, at every stage, his client was the president of the United States and was attorney general of the United States when his client should have been the people of the country.

GWEN IFILL: The president came out today. He put up a photograph of them being very friendly down at the ranch, and he also came out and said that he felt this was a good man who had been dragged through the mud. Was he correct?

DAVID BROOKS: No. I’m sure he believes that; I’m sure he still likes Gonzales. He’s the sort of man, when he values loyalty, he judges people’s character and often at the expense of judging how they’re doing at their job.

But the fact is, Gonzales was the author of his own downfall. If he had been a competent witness, if he had been able to get his story straight, if he’d have been able to rebut the firing of the prosecutors, the idea that this was grand conspiracy, which I don’t think it was, but his incompetence in the face of these political challenges was what really undid him.

He didn’t have the intelligence, frankly, and the competence and the experience to be an effective attorney general. If you look at people who have been effective attorney generals, they have long experience in Washington. And as Mark indicated, they have independent stature in the legal community, and he had neither.

Republican opposition to Gonzales

GWEN IFILL: Are those the harmful distractions the president was talking about today?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think the president, you know, likes to slip into this defense or this explanation, Gwen, because -- I just went through -- Norm Coleman, Republican in Minnesota, John Sununu, Republican of New Hampshire, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Pat Roberts, a Republican of Kansas, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, George Voinovich of Ohio, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, John McCain of Arizona, all of them had publicly called for Alberto Gonzales to leave.

So this was not a Democratic lynching party by any means. I mean, there's no question Democrats, many Democrats were happy to see him uncomfortable, happy to see the White House embarrassed.

I disagree with David: I don't think it was the U.S. attorneys thing, because I don't think that anything has ever been proved in that. The only two charges that remain unproven, as far as I'm concerned, would be if one of those U.S. attorneys was fired for prosecuting Republicans or for not prosecuting Democrats.

GWEN IFILL: What about his handling of the U.S. attorneys?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, his handling was just inept. It was more than inept. I think what sealed his fate was that hospital room drama, when he goes into a very seriously ill John Ashcroft's hospital room in Georgetown and tries to get him to overturn his own -- his, Ashcroft, who was then attorney general of the United States -- his department's decision not to reauthorize the unauthorized and warrantless wiretapping the White House had done. And I think that drama, when it unfolded...

GWEN IFILL: Was that that drama to you the straw?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it was so dramatic, captured everybody's attention. And it also was symptomatic of the larger story, which was this was a White House that came in with a tight group of Texans in the White House running a lot of agencies, dictating to cabinet secretaries how to behave. And that was the management style that this administration brought to town, and that has been slowly falling apart.

And I would say the departure of Rove and Gonzales are the last two pieces of the Texas group, a tight White House-controlled, small circles of trust. And now you'll probably have stronger cabinet secretaries. You already do at treasury; you already do at state; and you probably will with whoever the new attorney general is. You probably will there.

Choosing the next attorney general

GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about that. Who is the next attorney general going to be? And is there somebody out there who can win Senate confirmation?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, you're interested in someone who can win confirmation. And, I mean, there was a big brouhaha when Don Rumsfeld, another lighting rod in this administration, was cast overboard and ended his tenure, but Bob Gates, that didn't lead to a big fight. I mean, that was a wise decision, wise nomination.

I would say this: When Richard Nixon was faced with a similar problem after the Saturday night massacre and the resignation of Elliot Richardson as attorney general, Bill Ruckelshaus' deputy, he then understood that Bill Saxbe, the Republican senator from Ohio, was confirmable. I'd say what you're looking for is someone who's respected, independent and confirmable.

GWEN IFILL: Like?

MARK SHIELDS: I'd say -- well, obviously, Orrin Hatch has been on everybody's list, the senator from Utah. I don't know if he'd be interested. Mike DeWine, the former senator from Ohio, a member of the Judiciary Committee, respected member. Patrick Fitzgerald would be a bold stroke.

GWEN IFILL: Very bold.

MARK SHIELDS: It really would. I mean, you know, he is -- the model of Ed Levi, who was -- Jerry Ford nominated him. He was dean of the University of Chicago Law School. He was independent; he had stature; he was respected. And he became a very respected attorney general.

GWEN IFILL: Get into this crapshoot, David.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, Patrick Fitzgerald would be revolutionary. Ramsey Clark would be good, too. He's also available.

MARK SHIELDS: He wasn't a Republican U.S. attorney.

DAVID BROOKS: No, I think you do hear the same names, Orrin Hatch. You hear Michael Chertoff, who was the secretary of homeland security. But the senators at first glimpse seem to be confirmable because we have this myth that they all protect each other. In reality, John Tower or even John Ashcroft will tell you that myth doesn't always hold.

But everyone will say what Mark has said, which is Ed Levi is the model, somebody with independent legal stature who was independent but also a tough political operator.

GWEN IFILL: Are there any Republicans left willing to go to the mat for the president's nominee?

DAVID BROOKS: There are still in many parts of the country, and I've heard this from Republican presidential candidates. There's no profit in bucking the president. There still is a vestigial loyalty to the president. And so for Republicans, there will be a fair number. And I suspect they'll get somebody like Gates at Defense, somebody who is competent, someone who is broadly respected, and then Democrats will go at that person at their peril.

The Democratic risk

GWEN IFILL: What do you think? Are Democrats just looking for a fight to pick no matter who the president nominates?

MARK SHIELDS: Oh, I think there's a Democratic risk. Don't forget, Al Gonzales only got five Democratic votes when he was nominated long before all these controversies swirled about him. One of the five, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, you know, basically said, "You'd better be a lot more careful this time, Mr. President. We're going to be more skeptical."

But I don't think the nation wants anything that even suggests a cheap shot political circus at confirmation. It's up to the president; the ball is in his court. He can set the terms of the debate by nominating someone who is independent, who is respected, and who has stature, and who isn't his retainer.

DAVID BROOKS: And one of the things the people on the committee understand is what state the Justice Department is in. And Michael Greenberger alluded to this.

MARK SHIELDS: That's exactly right.

DAVID BROOKS: It's in disarray. And whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, you understand that, and so you want an organizational person who's not particularly -- who might be a technocrat.

MARK SHIELDS: That's a very good point. The Justice Department is the heart and soul of every administration. I mean, it is. It's the environment; it's civil rights; it's tax; it's anti-trust; it is organized crime; it's the FBI; it's judges.

I mean, it truly is, and it's the department where -- Arlen Specter said, after one of Gonzales' really bad episodes of testimony, he said, "No professional at the Justice Department can have self-respect at this point as long as you're an attorney general." I think that had to be remedied because it's an important, important job.

GWEN IFILL: Well, we will wait and see what occurs next. Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you very much.