Gonzales goes / A defiant president is uncomprehending to the last

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Although President Bush may never acknowledge it, the resignation of Alberto Gonzales as attorney general did his administration -- and the nation -- a big favor. He was a person who was clearly not up to the job and his continued presence was an embarrassment to almost everyone except Mr. Bush.

That perception was cemented back in April, when he made a disastrous appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee. He appeared clueless and without shame. Time and again, while questioned about the firings of U.S. attorneys around the country, he resorted to "I don't know" or "I can't recall." As we said at the time, he left the impression that he was either untruthful or incompetent or both.

Yet months went by and Mr. Bush stubbornly -- sometimes angrily -- refused to do anything about the situation that put Republican members of Congress on the defensive for no good reason. Yesterday the president was still putting personal loyalty ahead of accountability and performance, insisting that his friend's "good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons."

In reality, Mr. Gonzales supplied a steady stream of his own mud for the political machine to throw back at him. It was not the Democrats' idea that, as White House counsel, he was part of the team that went to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft on his sickbed and badgered him to reauthorize a secret domestic program that Justice Department lawyers had objected to.

Indeed, when he moved on to become attorney general, Mr. Gonzales was always compromised by the baggage he carried from his earlier role as the enabler for the president's cavalier attitude toward the Constitution.

His fingerprints had been all over some of the worst excesses of the administration -- the expanding of presidential powers, the eavesdropping, the justifications for harsh treatment bordering on torture and the dubious rules for prosecuting detainees in the war on terror. He came under fire, justifiably, in March when it was revealed that the FBI had improperly used the Patriot Act to obtain information about people and businesses -- which was all of a piece with his earlier record.

While the last straw was that he could not refute the suggestion that U.S. attorneys were fired for political reasons, his overall failure was utterly predictable. Mr. Gonzales was not chosen attorney general because of his legal scholarship but because he was an old friend from Texas who didn't know how to say no to Mr. Bush.

That explains why the president will miss him and also why many other Americans, including conservatives, won't.


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