In 1975, President Gerald Ford named Edward H. Levi, the president of the University of Chicago, as attorney general. Eulogizing Levi 25 years later, Ford said that in the aftermath of Watergate, he had been looking for someone divorced from politics who could restore public confidence in the Justice Department and the legal system.
“No campaign managers need apply, nor members of the family, official or political,” noted Ford. “I wanted him to protect the rights of American citizens, not the president who appointed him.”
Ford’s choice of Levi would be an excellent model for President Bush as he selects a new attorney general to succeed Alberto Gonzales. Gonzales was everything that Ford warned against. He was a member of Bush’s political “family,” who owed his entire career to the president and always placed his patron’s interest first.
Bush’s abuse of the Justice Department does not rival the crimes of the Watergate era (Richard Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell spent 19 months in jail). But presidential scholar Robert Dallek accurately assessed Gonzales’s tenure in telling the Financial Times: “People will be looking through the official records for many years to ferret out just how deep the political corruption went during his time at Justice.”
This “corruption” has demoralized the department. Most of the top leadership has left. The career professionals who provide consistency and coherence to law enforcement – whichever party occupies the White House – have been dangerously downgraded.
The place is a mess and the president needs to fix it. Besides, only a strong-minded nominee outside the president’s “family” has any chance of being confirmed by the Democratic Senate.
Here’s the problem: This White House has made so many decisions for purely political reasons, it’s core conservative supporters are used to getting their way and would object to any choice independent enough to pass Senate muster. Remember: these are the folks who shot down Harriet Miers as a Supreme Court nominee because she strayed from conservative orthodoxy on issues like affirmative action and gay rights.
The president and his purist allies have to recognize the peculiar role of the attorney general in the government system. Like all cabinet officers, an attorney general is a political figure, selected by a president who has won an election and deserves to pick his own team.
But unlike every other cabinet officer, an attorney general is not just a political figure. He or she answers not just to the president or to the voters, but to the law, which, at times, can clash with the popular will or the president’s interests. Gerald Ford was saying that when those clashes occur, an attorney general has to obey the law first.
Under Gonzales the reverse was true. Politics always came first. U.S. attorneys were fired because they refused to prosecute Democrats for voter fraud, or aggressively pursued Republicans suspected of fiscal chicanery. Justice employees attended at least a dozen political briefings at the White House, which may have violated the Hatch Act barring political activity by civil servants.
One of Gonzales’s aides, Monica Goodling, admitted that she had “gone too far” and “crossed the line” by asking job-seekers at Justice about their political affiliations. James Comey, who served as Gonzales deputy, was appalled at the revelations. “You just cannot have that,” he told Congress, “I don’t know any way you get the department’s reputation back.”
This is not a partisan issue. Democrats, too, can play politics with the law. John F. Kennedy appointed his brother as attorney general, and Bobby used the department to pursue Jack’s enemies.
And Republicans can be heroes. Attorney General Elliott Richardson resigned during the famous Saturday Night Massacre rather than follow Nixon’s order to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Bush’s first attorney general, John Ashcroft, and several of his aides, threatened to resign if the White House did not fix a program for eavesdropping on suspected terrorists that they thought was illegal.
There are plenty of Edward Levis out there, honorable men and women who can win Senate approval and repair the damage of the Gonzales years. One intriguing suggestion is former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. She’d win confirmation 100-to-0 and immediately restore the department’s integrity. So would John Danforth, former state attorney general and Republican senator from Missouri.
Neither are orthodox ideologues. O’Connor voted repeatedly to uphold Roe v. Wade. Danforth supports stem-cell research. But they would follow Ford’s admonition and protect the citizens first, not the president.
Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com.
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