WASHINGTON -- Succumbing to months of criticism over his honesty and leadership, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales announced his resignation yesterday, giving President Bush an opportunity to set the Justice Department on a fresh course during the final 17 months of his administration.
Gonzales had been weakened by scrutiny of his involvement in the firings of U.S. attorneys and his pursuit of a secretive warrantless wiretap program that has distressed defenders of civil liberties.
Providing testimony to Congress on those and other matters that lawmakers called misleading, Gonzales had lost support of large swaths of Washington's political and legal communities. News of the departure came after Bush and Gonzales appeared to be hunkered down, willing to withstand whatever lawmakers hurled in their direction.
Focus on the attorney general intensified when Democrats assumed control of Congress this year. With Gonzales wounding himself more gravely with each appearance on Capitol Hill, several influential Republicans had also called for his ouster.
But to the end, he maintained the backing of Bush, a longtime ally who appeared miffed at those whose relentless questions led to Gonzales' decision to step down Sept. 17.
"It's sad that we live in a time when a talented and honorable person like Alberto Gonzales is impeded from doing important work because his good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons," Bush said yesterday.
Gonzales called Bush on Friday to tell the president of his intentions, the White House said. Bush invited his longtime counsel to his Texas ranch to discuss the matter over lunch on Sunday, and Gonzales made the decision public in a brief statement in Washington yesterday, during which he seemed to be struggling to contain his emotions.
"I have lived the American dream," Gonzales said.
The president did not immediately nominate a successor, naming Solicitor General Paul Clement to serve as acting attorney general until the Senate confirms Bush's selection.
Role of politics
A Texan who came to Washington with the president, Gonzales, 52, grew to represent the most loyal of Bush loyalists, and in the eyes of critics he placed the political goals of the administration above the law enforcement responsibilities of his agency.
The president said Gonzales' tenure as attorney general was notable for protecting children from Internet predators and for combating gang violence. Bush praised Gonzales, the highest-ranking Hispanic-American ever in the federal government, for his "role in shaping our policies in the war on terror."
Democratic leaders vowed yesterday that their investigation into the firings of U.S. attorneys would continue, despite the resignations of Gonzales and White House political adviser Karl Rove.
Critics suspect Rove - with Gonzales' complicity - orchestrated the departures to make room for prosecutors more willing to advance the president's agenda, such as pursuing voter fraud cases that could yield political rewards for Republicans.
'Not a partisan'
"Now it will be up to the White House to choose a replacement who is, above all, a professional - not a partisan, not a pal," Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, told reporters yesterday. "Democrats will not obstruct or impede a nominee who we are confident will put the rule of law first, above political considerations."
Bush grew close to Gonzales in the early 1990s in Texas, impressed by the attorney's life story. One of eight children raised in a poor family in Texas, Gonzales joined the Air Force after high school and received degrees from Rice University and Harvard Law School.
"Even my worst days as attorney general have been better than my father's best days," Gonzales said yesterday.
After his election as Texas governor in 1994, Bush named Gonzales as his general counsel, relying on the lawyer's advice in sensitive situations such as Bush's call to jury duty in 1996. Gonzales argued that Bush should not serve as part of a jury hearing a drunken-driving case. Bush was excused, and he never disclosed an earlier drunken-driving arrest in Maine.
Bush appointed Gonzales as Texas secretary of state in 1997 and, two years later, named him to the Texas Supreme Court.
"He seemed like a bright young comer who mostly would reflect credit, and maybe wind up on the [U.S.] Supreme Court. Among the best and the brightest," said Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin.
Gonzales came to Washington as counsel to the president. He became a key architect of the USA Patriot Act and other tools to assist the White House as it aggressively pursued terrorists. He helped prepare memoranda that narrowly defined torture and sought loopholes in the Geneva Conventions so U.S. forces could extract information from captured al-Qaida and Taliban fighters.
He also participated in a 2004 visit to the hospital bed of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft - whom Gonzales would succeed in 2005 - to secure Ashcroft's blessing for a secret wiretapping program. Ashcroft refused to endorse the program, which appears to have been revised. The White House floated Gonzales' name as a Supreme Court nominee, but conservatives troubled by his support of abortion rights quickly quashed that.
Gonzales had received unrelenting scrutiny since March over firings of nine U.S. attorneys, who serve at the pleasure of the president. Bush has said the firings were not wrong, but Gonzales drew the ire of lawmakers when he told them that he was effectively out of the loop in decision-making, a position contradicted by e-mails and his own calendar.
Likewise, lawmakers said Gonzales misled them over the wiretapping program, and congressional Democrats have called on the solicitor general to investigate whether Gonzales provided false information to Congress.
Gonzales' troubles have their roots in his deep loyalty to Bush and his lack of experience in the cutthroat climate of Washington, Buchanan said.
"Gonzales made a decision to be a loyal consigliere," he said. "He was a young man who didn't have a reputation as a legal presence. He was vulnerable to that kind of influence."
As the scandals dragged on this year, Gonzales' chief of staff, deputy attorney general and White House liaison have resigned, leaving a depleted Justice Department riddled with morale problems. Gonzales' successor will have to rebuild a management team and restore a mission of purpose.
Names of possible replacements began to surface yesterday, including that of Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff, a former Justice official. Other mentioned candidates include former Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson and former Deputy Attorney General George J. Terwilliger III.
Erwin Chemerinsky, a professor of constitutional law at Duke University, said Bush should nominate "someone of stature and independence" along the historical model of Edward H. Levi, the former University of Chicago president appointed attorney general by President Gerald R. Ford after the Watergate scandal.
Former Maryland U.S. Attorney and Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs agreed. "In order to restore the sense of integrity and confidence in the department, I think the president should ... reach for someone who is really an exemplar of non-partisanship," Sachs said.
Sun reporters Matthew Hay Brown and Siobhan Gorman contributed to this article.
The nation's 80th U.S. attorney general resigned yesterday.
1955 Born in San Antonio, Texas; raised in Houston; has seven siblings
1973-75 In U.S. Air Force
1975-77 Attended U.S. Air Force Academy
1979 Bachelor's degree from Rice University
1982 Law degree, Harvard Law School
1982-95 Joined Houston law firm of Vinson & Elkins; later became partner; firm represented energy giant Enron
1995-97 General counsel to Texas Gov. George W. Bush
1997-99 Secretary of state for Texas
1999-2000 Justice, Texas Supreme Court
2001-04 White House counsel
2005-07 U.S. attorney general; first Hispanic-American to hold the post
* Wrote memo saying president had the right to waive treaties protecting prisoners of war
* Said president is empowered to eavesdrop on Americans without warrants as part of war on terror
* Fired eight U.S. attorneys, some say for political reasons
Source: The White House, AP, Lasculturas.com