Choosing a new attorney general will be easy if President Bush follows a simple rule: Look for the opposite of Alberto R. Gonzales.
Apparently Gonzales finally recognized the damage caused by his mind-boggling explanations of his role in the firings of nine U.S. attorneys and a bizarre episode in which he tried to pressure his ailing predecessor, John Ashcroft, into approving a legally dubious surveillance program. His news conference Monday was emblematic of his tenure at the Justice Department: He refused to answer questions and flirted with self-pity, noting that "even my worst days as attorney general have been better than my father's best days." Those comments closed a cloying circle that began 2 1/2 years ago when Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) introduced Gonzales to the Judiciary Committee as "a Horatio Alger story -- Hispanic background, seven siblings, the first to go to college. . . . " That biography didn't prevent Gonzales from presiding over a Justice Department that Specter later called "close to being dysfunctional."
The next attorney general shouldn't be chosen because of an inspirational life story or because he is a "close friend" of the president (Bush's description). The Senate shouldn't accept anything less than a distinguished lawyer who can be trusted to insulate criminal prosecution from even the appearance of partisan meddling. But Senate Democrats should be careful not to demand more -- a nominee whose policy views match theirs. The attorney general isn't simply the nation's top prosecutor; he's also a member of the president's Cabinet. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) recognized that reality Monday when he declined an opportunity to oppose one possible successor to Gonzales, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
Chertoff is hardly apolitical. In the 1990s, he was counsel for Senate Republicans in the investigation of Bill and Hillary Clinton's Whitewater real estate deal. He has been an evangelist for the administration's immigration proposals and the target of valid complaints about the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina. But Chertoff is also a former clerk to Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, and a former judge who once headed the Justice Department's criminal division. He, or someone with similar credentials, would be the un-Gonzales -- which is exactly what the demoralized Justice Department needs.