Bedtime for Gonzo

A quick and dirty rundown of the attorney general's legacy


How will history remember Alberto Gonzales? Will the first Hispanic U.S. attorney general be recalled as a trailblazer, a man whose every day on the job was, as he said in his pithy resignation speech, "was better than my father's best day"? Or was his legacy defined long before he took this job, when he was White House counsel and writing memos justifying the use of torture? Will he be a historical footnote, a trivia question between the DOJ reigns of John Ashcroft and Michael Chertoff? Or will he have a long-ranging influence that will only come to light when Americans learn the facts about the government during the early years of the "Global War on Terror"?

In November 2004, Julian Sanchez reacted to the news of Gonzales possibly replacing John Ashcroft.

You may recall that the last time Gonzales' name was prominent in the news, he was advising the president to avoid potential war crimes charges by declaring detainees outside the bounds of the "quaint" Geneva Conventions.

In January 2005, Nick Gillespie wondered what effect Gonzales' "torture memos" would have on his confirmation hearings.

I'm betting that the Dems–and maybe some anti-torture Reps, too–take a pretty mean hatchet to Gonzales as confirmation of him as attorney general gets underway, even to the point of killing the nomination. Someone in the Bush admin is eventually going to pay for screwups with detainees, Abu Ghraib, etc. and Gonzales is as likely a candidate as anyone (more so than Rummy, I'd wager today).

After Gonzales was confirmed, Jesse Walker made a prediction:

I expect he'll be almost as good as Reno and Ashcroft.

Later, Jacob Sullum tried to divine his attitude toward using PATRIOT Act powers.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales recently assured the Senate Judiciary Committee the Justice Department "has no interest in rummaging through the library records or the medical records of Americans." This is pretty much the extent of the limits imposed by the USA PATRIOT Act on the FBI's ability to peruse your personal records: It can do so only if it wants to.

Julian Sanchez detected some softness from Gonzales when it came to 2005's looming PATRIOT Act renewal.

Unlike his predecessor, Gonzales did not rail against critics as hysterics seeking to "scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty" or charge that those who question the PATRIOT Act "aid terrorists" or "give ammunition to America's enemies." He even announced that he was "open to suggestions" on how PATRIOT might be improved, and made a genuinely heartening concession that it might be wise to amend the act's section 215 to clarify that people served with secret requests for records may at least contact attorneys if they wish to challenge any given request. But the general tenor of the testimony—aided by the inquisitive equivalent of a reacharound from Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Alab.)—was familiar: PATRIOT is vital, concerns about civil liberties sacrifices are either hysterical or based on misunderstandings of the law, and no very serious rethinking of controversial provisions is needed.

But there wasn't that much softness to come from Gonzales' DOJ. Not much sense, either. Jeff Taylor exposed the problems with Gonzales' plans to crack down on child porn.

Gonzales claimed the info hoarding is needed to stop child pornography. Assuming the Bush administration really believes that—and we'll get to that—collecting giant stacks of cyber-hay in order to find pedophiles is madness.

In February 2007, Radley Balko looked at the emerging scandal surrounding the firing of several U.S. attorneys, and argued that the controversy was misplaced.

The most troubling thing about the Justice Department's recent dismissal of several U.S. attorneys, then, isn't that Attorney General Gonzales expects his subordinates to share his priorities. What's most disturbing is what those priorities actually are.

By April 2007, Gonzales' lackluster performances when testifying before Congress or fielding uncomfortable questions led Steve Chapman to wonder how he got so far.

Watching Alberto Gonzales fumble his way through a Senate hearing last week suggested that neither ideology nor venality is to blame. The real problem lies in a long-forgotten phenomenon known as the Peter Principle, which says: "In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence."

In the summer of 2007, as Gonzales' handling of PATRIOT Act renewal and of the firing of U.S. Attorneys became scandals, David Weigel asked whether he had made truth-tellers out of civil liberties "chicken littles."

"The way they handled the reauthorization process was horrible," says [Sen. John] Sununu (R-N.H.), who went on to filibuster the reauthorization. "The attorney general had an opportunity to develop a rapport with Congress. That's what we wanted. He decided not to engage in discussions. In my opinion, that was the failure that led to the confrontation."

Last month, as Gonzales fumbled through more Senate hearings on his tenure, Jacob Sullum reported on some of his most confounding decisions and denials.

Gonzales also confirmed that he and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card went to Ashcroft's hospital room, where he was recovering from gallbladder surgery, and urged him not to let the intelligence program expire, but he denied that he tried to take advantage of Ashcroft's illness, as Comey charged. "Obviously," Gonzales told the committee, "there was concern about General Ashcroft's condition, and we would not have sought, nor did we intend to get any approval from General Ashcroft if in fact he wasn't fully competent to make that decision." Gonzales said he just wanted to let Ashcroft know that congressional leaders who were briefed on the program wanted it to continue.

And after two-plus years of wrestling with that criticism and those issues, Gonzales resigned.