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Published: Saturday, 3/17/2007

Whether he likes it or not, Bush may have to cut 'Fredo' loose

WASHINGTON - Attorney General Alberto Gonzales wrote memos condoning torture, said the United States doesn't have to abide by the Geneva Convention's restrictions on questioning terror suspects, authorized domestic wiretaps without court warrants, and says he's responsible for mistakes made in firing a raft of U.S. attorneys on his watch - although he didn't know what was going on.

He is also deeply loyal to President Bush, and Mr. Bush reciprocates. They have a long, warm friendship forged through their Texas roots. And there is absolutely no evidence that Mr. Gonzales did anything - anything - that was not sanctioned by the White House.

Will he stay in office? Should he stay in office?

Many thought Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wouldn't be ousted, despite an avalanche of criticism. He was. And the betting is that the handwriting is now on the wall for Mr. Gonzales to "resign" before the Bush Administration's term ends.

Mr. Gonzales has withstood withering attacks both as the President's personal lawyer and as attorney general. He replaced John Ashcroft at the helm of the Justice Department even though the administration had to disavow his so-called "torture memo" written after 9/11. He survived even though the administration lost his interpretation of the Geneva Conventions in the Supreme Court. He maintained the President's confidence even though domestic wiretaps now have to be vetted by the court set up under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

He has done nothing illegal by approving the firing of eight U.S. attorneys - they act as prosecutors - midway through the President's second term although the timing was unprecedented. Presidents usually fire prosecutors in a blanket way when they first come into office, not halfway though a term, so they can fill those slots with their own people.

But Democrats are screaming "foul," contending the U.S. attorneys were fired for political reasons either because the White House did not want Republicans investigated or because the prosecutors didn't bring indictments the White House or congressional Republicans sought. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton demands that Mr. Gonzales resign, arguing that he "seems to confuse his prior role as the President's personal attorney with his duty to the system of justice and to the entire country."

It is not a surprise that Mr. Gonzales disagrees and is refusing to leave.

But even some Republicans are uneasy with the prospect of the attorney general remaining in office although Mr. Bush vigorously defends him. After Mr. Gonzales conceded, a la Richard Nixon, that "mistakes were made" in firing the attorneys and then in providing misleading reasons to Congress, accepting responsibility, Sen. John Sununu (R., N.H.) said it was time for the President to fire Mr. Gonzales.

Conservatives have never been happy with Mr. Gonzales, believing he isn't one of them because they think he's not passionate about their issues, such as opposing affirmative action and abortion. When Mr. Gonzales was suggested for the Supreme Court (he would have been the first Hispanic justice of the nation's top court), several leading conservatives unloaded broad hints they'd fight such a nomination.

Thus, as Mr. Gonzales struggles to get past this current controversy, he is being buffeted both by liberals who think he's been too profligate in erasing civil liberties and by conservatives who think he's too moderate.

His biggest backer is the President, whose own job approval is low and whose political advisers are still ascendant, meaning Mr. Gonzales might be deemed expendable. And because of last November's elections Democrats have subpoena power to probe documents that otherwise would be pushed deep into locked file cabinets and password-protected computers.

Mr. Gonzales, only 51, is the man from Humble, a tiny Texas town, the only college graduate in his family. He also became a Harvard Law School graduate and a justice of the Texas Supreme Court. He's a pleasant man, modest, nondrinking, polite, even-tempered; he's still called "the judge" by colleagues. And he counts as one of his chief blessings in life that the President likes him, really likes him. Once before, in 2005, Mr. Bush publicly defended his fellow Texan: "I don't like it when a friend gets criticized. I'm loyal to my friends. All of a sudden this fellow, who is a good public servant and a really fine person, is under fire. And so, do I like it? No, I don't like it, at all."

He obviously still doesn't like it. But if the furor over the fired prosecutors doesn't go away - and Democrats have every intention of keeping the issue alive - Mr. Bush, as he did with Mr. Rumsfeld, may have to cut loose the man he affectionately calls Fredo.

Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986.

Contact her at: amcfeatters@hotmail.com.)



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