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Gonzales' "Ignore Everything" Strategy Still Working

By Carl Leubsdorf

As embattled Attorney General Al Gonzales began his speech Tuesday to the National Press Club, a nicely dressed, white-haired woman rose and yelled: "Mr. Gonzales, resign! You've dishonored your country. You've destroyed the Constitution."

The attorney general ignored her as she was hustled out. And, after parrying more than a dozen questions about his mishandling of the firing of those U.S. attorneys, he made clear again he also isn't listening to members of Congress who have urged him to quit.

"At the end of the day, that really is a question for the president of the United States," he said, secure in knowing President Bush has repeatedly said that he wants his longtime legal adviser to stay.

Outwardly, the attorney general's success in outlasting his critics might indicate that Mr. Bush hasn't lost his clout, despite diminished popularity stemming mainly from the Iraq war.

But it may also reflect the fact that the president has little to gain from ousting Mr. Gonzales in terms of bolstering his public standing or clout on Capitol Hill.

Only the unlikelihood of a vastly improved situation in Iraq can revive his national standing. And the anticipation of the 2008 elections is a major reason why even congressional Republicans who generally voted with Mr. Bush are talking of putting their own political futures ahead of helping a president who often ignores them.

Add to that the aggressive Democratic attacks on the handling of a spate of issues - including those involving the Justice Department - and Mr. Bush may figure he's better off keeping a loyal associate in a post that could become a major irritant if held by an independent-minded attorney general.

Besides, senior Senate Democrats say they won't hold confirmation proceedings for top Justice Department posts until the White House stops stonewalling on requests for on-the-record testimony about the U.S. attorneys' ouster from Karl Rove and former counsel Harriet Miers.

In his Press Club appearance, Mr. Gonzales stuck to his prior stance that he was not directly involved in much of the discussion about firing the federal prosecutors and couldn't recall many details. About all he conceded was that "I should have been more involved in this," though he also insisted that "nothing improper happened here."

But the attorney general didn't just pass the buck on his future up to the president. He also passed the buck for mishandling the situation down to his newly resigned deputy, Paul McNulty, who said he signed off on the decision but was not much involved in the discussions that led to it.

Mr. Gonzales said the White House "never added or deleted" names from the list of potential victims, though last week he told the House Judiciary Committee he couldn't say who put the names on there.

A Senate hearing Tuesday produced a new embarrassment for Mr. Gonzales: testimony that he and another top White House aide went to the hospital in an unsuccessful effort to pressure his ailing predecessor, John Ashcroft, into approving a domestic surveillance program the department had rejected as unconstitutional.

Yet the White House strategy of simply resisting bipartisan calls for Mr. Gonzales to quit is succeeding - at least so far.

Barring impeachment, no one can force a president to remove an incompetent Cabinet member if he doesn't want to. And Mr. Bush seems far more interested in keeping his close political associate in charge of the Justice Department than in making a change.

Besides, if news reports are correct that the underlying reason for removing many of the U.S. attorneys was their refusal to press election fraud probes, there's little doubt Mr. Rove and even Mr. Bush fully shared that concern, despite the minimal evidence such fraud existed in any large degree.

Democrats would certainly consider it a victory to force the ouster of so close a Bush confidant.

Ironically, they might actually benefit more over time if Mr. Bush allows his embarrassing tenure to continue and it becomes an issue for GOP candidates in next year's election.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington Bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News. His e-mail address is cleubsdorf@dallasnews.com.

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