- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 17, 2007

Those who subscribe to the notion U.S. attorneys are above the political fray are potential customers for a sweet real estate deal in the Okefenokee Swamp.

Just to clear things up a bit, U.S. attorneys get their jobs by being either loyal workers or contributors to the success of their political party or knowing someone with strong political connections to the White House. They may or may not be great attorneys. That really has very little to do with it. They are pure and simple political appointees who serve at the pleasure of the president and are subject to dismissal at any time despite the false security of a four-year term.

Furthermore, while they like to maintain that once in office they are independent from the wishes of their bosses in Washington, that is only partially true. They are expected to follow the policies endorsed by the administration. In the case of at least some of the eight fired by the Justice Department, the White House and Republican lawmakers apparently were unhappy about their failure to expeditiously pursue allegations of Democratic voter fraud.

Certainly there have been well-documented instances when prosecution was sidetracked because of pure political consideration.

In the 1950s a federal grand jury voted unanimously to indict a controversial but popular African-American congressman, Adam Clayton Powell, on a number of fraud and corruption counts. Before the action was announced, the congressman, a Democrat, held a press conference endorsing Republican Dwight Eisenhower’s re-election as president. The then-attorney general, with the acquiescence of the U.S. attorney, refused to approve the indictment.

Since Watergate, there has been far less interference. When questions involving administration propriety have arisen, the Justice Department often has acquiesced to an outside prosecutor to avoid an appearance of favoritism or cover-up.

Having said all that, the heavy-handedness of the dismissal was deplorable. Even President Bush found it so. It is not good form to call someone Friday and tell them not to come to work Monday, particularly those with such high-profile jobs. The result has been predictable — a veritable Democratic orgy of protest and chest thumping that threatens the job of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, already a controversial figure, and causes the beleaguered Mr. Bush further heartburn.

But what did the White House and the department expect? Hello. There is a new Democratic majority on Capitol Hill that has its eyes set on recapturing the Oval Office in less than two years and intends to take full advantage of every opportunity to whack an increasingly unpopular lame-duck Republican president.

Some of the more virulent critics have waited a long time to get even not only with a president, whom they feel is a puppet for evil forces, but the chief puppeteer, Karl Rove, whom they blame for their loss of the last two presidential elections.

Mr. Gonzales admits mistakes were made. He is correct and one of the worst was his silly statement he would never relieve one of the attorneys for political reasons. Of course he would. Every administration since the position was created has done just that when its political interests were at stake. A major difference between now and then is that these actions weren’t documented by e-mails.

Clearly Mr. Gonzales’ chief assistant, Eric Sampson, author of the e-mails outlining the firing strategy and who has now resigned, was a major player. But Mr. Gonzales’ protest that he personally wasn’t in the loop is ridiculous. Please. The ultimate responsibility is his and he must at least take blame for employing Mr. Sampson.

Because of his weak performance here and in other controversies, it is quite possible the president’s opponents will end up with Mr. Gonzales’ scalp. The prolonged problems of Iraq and Afghanistan may have weakened Mr. Bush to the point he is unable to prevent that without damaging his other objectives.

But Mr. Bush is nothing if not stubborn and prone to slug it out when necessary. A word of caution to Democrats: Be careful with Mr. Gonzales, the son of Mexican immigrants who is the first Hispanic — now the largest minority in the nation — to hold that prestigious job. A Latino political backlash could be a concern.

Meanwhile, don’t be fooled by the holier-than-thou attitude of those inside the Beltway who claim there is no politics in Justice and that your favorite U.S. attorney got and keeps his job strictly on merit.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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