Whitehouse takes Gonzales to the woodshed

Sheldon Whitehouse sounds like a character who would be played by Franklin Pangborn, the fussy second banana to W.C. Fields in The Bank Dick. Actually, Whitehouse is a freshman Democratic senator from Rhode Island who has been the breakout star of the Senate investigation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and his firing of eight U.S. attorneys.

The secret of Whitehouse’s success, other than being telegenic by C-SPAN standards, is that he seems to recognize that, when it comes to public Gonzales-bashing by Democrats, less may be more.

It’s not that Whitehouse, himself a former U.S. attorney, has gone easy on the crony President Bush calls “mi abogado.” During this week’s debate over a resolution expressing no confidence in the attorney general, Whitehouse effectively itemized a “bill of particulars” ranging from unprecedented White House intrusion in the Justice Department to the improper use of political criteria in filling career positions. Most adroitly of all, he defused the argument that Gonzales was on safe ground as long as he didn’t try to thwart a particular prosecution.

“His stated definition of what is improper for him and his staff, believe it or not, tracks the legal standard for criminal obstruction of justice,” Whitehouse said of Gonzales. “Is that the kind of attorney general we want?”

Yet what Whitehouse didn’t say on the Senate floor was as important as what he did say. He didn’t assert that Gonzales had obstructed justice by firing nine U.S. attorneys, including Carol Lam in San Diego, the nemesis of former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (although he says his gut tells him that Lam was removed because of her aggressive pursuit of public corruption).

When it comes to the worst-case scenario of prosecutors being fired for doing their jobs, Whitehouse told me, “We have yet to find the smoking gun.”

Paradoxically, that lawyerly caution makes Whitehouse a more effective critic of Gonzales than some of his more excitable colleagues, not to mention critics outside Congress like New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who wrote (in a paraphrase of ‘60s rocker Stephen Stills), “There’s something happening here, and what it is seems completely clear: the Bush administration is trying to protect itself by purging independent-minded prosecutors.”

It helps that Whitehouse is free of the partisan baggage that weighs down another prominent Gonzales critic, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York). When Schumer complains about the injection of politics into the Justice Department, Republicans gleefully point out that this paragon of nonpartisanship does double duty as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

The debate over Gonzales’ fitness has featured absurd extremes: Either U.S. attorneys are apolitical civil servants or mere political functionaries who should expect to do the bidding of figures like Karl Rove. Whitehouse has a more realistic—and a more nuanced—view.

One of his criticisms of Gonzales is that the attorney general has trashed a tradition in which “U.S. attorneys used to come from their home districts, where they were accountable to local people, where they knew the judges and the law enforcement officers.” Such local ties, he argues, can be a brake on prosecutorial overreaching and lockstep conformity with the administration in power.

But Whitehouse acknowledged that, as part of that tradition, home-state senators sometimes promote candidates who are “comers” in the president’s political party. In retrospect, Whitehouse himself fits that description, though he says he didn’t initially view the U.S. attorney’s job as a stepping-stone.

The role of politics in the appointment of U.S. attorneys is a “mixed blessing,” Whitehouse conceded. But with his carefully crafted bill of particulars, he’s making the case that what Gonzales has done to Justice is an unmitigated curse.

Michael McGough is The Times’ senior editorial writer.

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