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Bush names Gonzales to replace Ashcroft

President Bush on Wednesday named White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, a Texas confidant and one of the most prominent Hispanics in the administration, to succeed Attorney General John Ashcroft.
U.S President George W. Bush listens to his attorney general nominee Alberto Gonzales in Washington
President Bush listens as White House legal counsel Alberto Gonzales speaks to the media after Bush nominated him to be attorney general Wednesday at the White House.Jason Reed / Reuters
/ Source: NBC News and news services

With a hug and words of high praise, President Bush named Alberto Gonzales as attorney general on Wednesday, elevating the administration’s most prominent Hispanic to a highly visible post in the war on terrorism.

“His sharp intellect and sound judgment have helped shape our policies in the war on terror,” Bush said of the man who has served as the White House’s top lawyer over the past four years.

In an announcement in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Bush touched on Gonzales’ personal story — a boy who grew up poor in a family of eight children in a two-bedroom house in Texas — and now is in line for a Cabinet post.

“‘Just give me a chance to prove myself,’ that is a common prayer for those in my community,” said Gonzales, who would be the first Hispanic to hold the nation’s top law enforcement job. “Mr. President, thank you for that chance.”

If confirmed by the Senate, the 49-year-old Texan would replace John Ashcroft, who announced plans on Tuesday to step down after four stormy years in the post. Commerce Secretary Don Evans also announced his resignation Tuesday.

Bush met Wednesday with Secretary of State Colin Powell, another figure being closely watched for signs of whether he will stay on for a second term. Powell has been largely noncommittal when asked about his plans.

When asked about Powell's future with the administration, Bush said Powell was doing a great job but did not address whether he would be staying on. Bush was answering reporters’ questions at the White House during a visit with the secretary-general of NATO, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.

‘Less polarizing’
Even before Bush formally announced his choice of Gonzales for attorney general, one Senate Democrat welcomed the appointment of “someone less polarizing” to the position. “We will have to review his record very carefully, but I can tell you already he’s a better candidate than John Ashcroft,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., a member of the Judiciary Committee.

Gonzales’ career has been linked with Bush for at least a decade. He served as general counsel when Bush was governor of Texas, and then as secretary of state and as a justice on the Texas Supreme Court.

"My confidence in Al was high to begin with. It has only grown with time," the president said, hugging Gonzales as he concluded his remarks.

Gonzales has been at the center of developing Bush’s positions on balancing civil liberties with waging the war on terrorism — opening the White House counsel to the same line of criticism that has dogged Ashcroft.

For instance, Gonzales publicly defended the administration’s policy — essentially repudiated by the Supreme Court and now being fought out in the lower courts — of detaining certain terrorism suspects for extended periods without access to lawyers or courts.

Controversial positions
He also wrote a controversial February 2002 memo in which Bush claimed the right to waive anti-torture law and international treaties providing protections to prisoners of war. That position drew fire from human rights groups, which said it helped lead to the type of abuses uncovered in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq.

The American Civil Liberties Union said it expected the Senate to closely examine those issues during confirmation hearings. The ACLU said it had no position on Gonzales but added: “Particular attention should be devoted to exploring Mr. Gonzales’ proposed policies on the constitutionality of the Patriot Act, the Guantanamo Bay detentions, the designation of United States citizens as enemy combatants and reproductive rights.”

Some conservatives also have quietly questioned Gonzales’ credentials on core social issues. And he once was a partner in a Houston law firm that represented the scandal-ridden energy giant Enron.

Vacancy in counsel position
Shifting Gonzales to the Justice Department would create a vacancy in the White House counsel’s office.

Bush advisers said two people would be naturals for the job. One is White House staff secretary Brett Kavanaugh, a lawyer who has been waiting nearly 16 months for confirmation on the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. He was also a top lawyer in two cases that dogged the Clinton White House. As associate independent counsel under Kenneth Starr, he worked on both the long-running Whitewater case and the 1998 Clinton impeachment case.

Harriet Miers, a deputy chief of staff who was once Bush’s personal lawyer, would be another candidate, one Bush adviser said.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., voiced pleasure Wednesday with Ashcroft’s departure and exhorted Bush “to make good on his promise of renewed bipartisan cooperation” with Democrats.

Evans, Bush’s 2000 campaign chairman and close friend of more than three decades, said he longed to return to Texas.

Bush was considering this year’s campaign money man, Mercer Reynolds, for Evans’ job. As national finance chairman for the Bush campaign, Reynolds raised more than $260 million to get him re-elected.