When Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales's top aide contemplated the mass dismissal of chief federal prosecutors two years ago, he advocated keeping the "loyal Bushies." Two years later, the question confronting President Bush is whether to keep Gonzales, the very model of a loyal Bushie.
As Gonzales heads to Capitol Hill today for a long-anticipated public interrogation about the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, at issue is the very concept of loyalty in Bush's world. With any other president, many in Washington say, the attorney general would already be gone. Bush has defied the drumbeat from both parties to remove Gonzales, but even the White House considers today's Senate hearing make or break.
Few moments in Bush's presidency have tested the limits of loyalty more acutely than this one. For six years, the president has largely stood by those who have stood by him and has rarely given in to pressure to toss allies aside when they have come under fire. When he has, he has often resisted so long that the damage had already been done -- pulling the Supreme Court nomination of Harriet E. Miers only after weeks of all-out conservative revolt and firing then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld only after a decisive midterm election defeat.
Bush has been more willing to part ways with those he has viewed as less than fully devoted to him and his agenda, most prominently then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. Critics believe this fixation on loyalty has left the president isolated from dissent and surrounded by ideological yes men, but it has also given him a team that has remained unusually cohesive through adversity, at least until recently, as more former insiders have spoken out critically.
‘It's a two-way street’
"In his mind, loyalty works both ways. It's a two-way street," said Scott McClellan, the former White House press secretary who followed Bush from Texas. "Particularly those who have been with him a long time, the Texans, he's developed more than a professional relationship; it's a friendship."
That seems especially true with Gonzales, a Bush confidant for a dozen years. Bush calls him "Fredo" and has given him five jobs over the years. The two have spent weekends together with their wives at Camp David. "It makes it tough for the president -- and less likely that the president's going to want to do anything to push him out," said Charles Black, a GOP lobbyist close to the White House.
Bush does not think Gonzales did anything wrong in dismissing the prosecutors, according to aides, but has been aggravated by his friend's clumsy, shifting explanations of what happened. In effect, advisers said, Bush is giving Gonzales a chance to fix the situation today.
What happens if he does not remains unclear. No one in the White House believes Gonzales can say anything that would get Democrats to drop the matter, but his supporters hope he can be confident and consistent enough to explain his role without providing more ammunition for critics. Should he stumble, some Republicans said, Gonzales has a responsibility to fall on his sword, sparing Bush having to ask.
"The president's loyalty is the only explanation for the attorney general's continued service," said Mark Corallo, a former Bush Justice Department spokesman. "The attorney general's not a bad person. He's a smart guy. But he completely mishandled the situation on so many levels that he has completely shattered the trust of the people who work for him. . . . At this point, the attorney general's loyalty to President Bush needs to trump President Bush's loyalty to the attorney general."
Bush's notion of loyalty was forged in the fires of his father's White House, when he grew offended at what he saw as personal agendas and cutthroat infighting. The focus of much of his discontent was White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, whom Bush considered more devoted to his own empire-building than to the president.
Sununu sealed his fate when he said on television that the president had "ad-libbed" a controversial line in a speech. Bush was furious that Sununu appeared to blame the president rather than defend him. "We have a saying in our family," Bush was later quoted as saying. " 'If a grenade is rolling by the Man, you dive on it first.' The guy violated the cardinal rule." Bush flew to Washington and told Sununu to quit.
When he returned to Washington a decade later, Bush brought a cadre of faithful Texans, including Gonzales, who became White House counsel. The two met when Gonzales was tapped to handle legal work for the 1992 Republican convention in Houston. Bush was taken with Gonzales's life story: One of eight children of an alcoholic laborer living in a two-bedroom house in a town called Humble, Gonzales graduated Harvard Law School and became a blue-chip lawyer. "He's just very inspired by his journey in life," said a senior Bush aide.
As governor of Texas, Bush made Gonzales his counsel and later secretary of state and state Supreme Court justice. Their friendship deepened during the many last-minute death-penalty petitions Gonzales handled for Bush. Gonzales also became the keeper of family secrets, getting the governor dismissed from jury duty in a drunken driving case -- effectively shielding Bush from disclosure of his own arrest for driving under the influence.
‘Big brother-little brother relationship’
The two men bonded despite drastically different personalities, the outgoing jokester and the reserved lawyer. "It always looked to me like a big brother-little brother relationship," said a former White House official, insisting on anonymity to discuss personal matters. "The president always held the upper hand in the relationship, but he felt very fondly for Judge Gonzales, and in return Judge Gonzales was always very protective of him."
But he became a lightning rod, assailed by the left for dismissing portions of the Geneva Conventions as "outdated" and "quaint" and by the right as unreliable on abortion and affirmative action. Rather than put him on the Supreme Court, Bush made Gonzales attorney general.
With Gonzales no longer in the White House, the relationship has evolved. When an FBI raid on the office of Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) last year provoked a bipartisan uproar, Gonzales resisted White House pressure to give back the seized material and threatened to resign. Some in the West Wing concluded Gonzales was "going native" at Justice, as one put it.
Still, the focus on loyalty followed him to Justice. When Gonzales's chief aide evaluated the nation's 93 U.S. attorneys, those who "exhibited loyalty to the president and the attorney general" were put in the top category. At the root of the controversy over the subsequent firings is whether political fealty trumped performance. The loyalty Bush values helped generate the furor now testing his own.
And when it comes to loyalty, what goes around comes around. Among the Republicans now calling for Gonzales to resign? New Hampshire Sen. John E. Sununu, son of the chief of staff pushed out by Bush.