Loyal to a fault

Are we supposed to be surprised that President Bush has had the back of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales? After all, there’s a simple explanation for it: Gonzales, who owes his career to George W. Bush’s support, has been doing the president’s bidding all along.

It was Gonzales, after all, who at the request of the White House and then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld came up with the legal justification for the torture and mistreatment of prisoners that led to the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the “enhanced interrogation techniques"—torture, in ordinary language—used in secret CIA prisons and at Guantánamo Bay.

More recently, he went along in politicizing eight U.S. attorney posts at the behest, apparently, of Karl Rove, the president’s political attack dog. Rove, who wanted to make it more difficult in certain key swing states for Democrats to vote, had decided that the attorneys had failed to prosecute supposed voter fraud with sufficient zeal and needed to go. That the attorneys saw little or no evidence of fraud was beside the point. Gonzales fired them (even if he doesn’t remember doing so).

Now we learn of an incident so bizarre it beggars the imagination.

In March 2004, Attorney General John Ashcroft was locked in battle with the White House over a program of warrantless domestic electronic surveillance the president had authorized following 9/11. That Ashcroft, a bedrock conservative, was willing to defy the man who appointed him suggests just how radically the spy scheme violated the Constitution.

Then Ashcroft became ill and went to the hospital for gall bladder surgery. His chief deputy, James Comey, became acting attorney general.

As Comey told a congressional committee last week, he also was concerned about the constitutionality of the program and refused to sign off on its reauthorization until changes were made. In response Gonzales, who was White House counsel at the time, and Bush’s chief of staff, Andrew Card, did an end-run around Comey, descending on the ailing, drug-addled Ashcroft at the hospital, document in hand, to get him to sign the reauthorization.

Fortunately for the nation, Ashcroft rallied sufficiently to turn them down. But it would be hard to imagine a more squalid scene. And the only explanation for the presence of both Gonzales and Card in that hospital room is that the president wanted them there.

The Justice Department has a long and proud history of nonpartisanship, and Gonzales has shredded its integrity. We’ll be better off without him. But it’s important to remember just whose bidding he was doing.