The next attorney general - and the one who will follow

CHICAGO — CHICAGO -- When President Bush nominated Michael B. Mukasey to be attorney general, presidential candidates offered reactions that broke down mostly on party lines - Republicans positive, Democrats guarded.

Republican Rudolph W. Giuliani, whose campaign counts Mr. Mukasey as an adviser, gushed that "he will meet and exceed all expectations."


Democrat John Edwards was a harder sell. "We need to hear more about how Judge Mukasey will repair the serious damage caused by his predecessors," he said.

But what the candidates have to say about the person Mr. Bush chose doesn't really matter much. What would be much more valuable is to know, if they are ever in a position to nominate someone for attorney general, whom it would be. You think you could do better? Fine - take your best shot, right now.


That information might help voters make up their minds. After all, nobody guessed in advance that Mr. Bush, upon being elected in 2000, would turn the Justice Department over to a Missouri senator who needed a job, having just lost an election to an opponent who happened to be dead. John Ashcroft was on nobody's list of legal heavyweights. Nor did we know that shortly after being re-elected, the president would give the job to Alberto R. Gonzales, another nominee whose virtues were far more visible to Mr. Bush than to anyone else.

It's good to know what the candidates think about Mr. Mukasey and his predecessor at the Justice Department, mainly because those opinions give us an idea what sort of attorney general they envision. Better still, though, for them to give us an idea what sort of attorney general they envision by providing some names.

That shouldn't be too hard for them to do, since most of them are well-connected members of the bar. Mr. Giuliani was associate attorney general under President Ronald Reagan, so he knows what the job entails. Republican Fred Thompson was a federal prosecutor and counsel to some important congressional committees.

Democratic Sen. Barack Obama is a member of the faculty at the University of Chicago law school, where he could find a possible candidate or two. Mr. Edwards was one of the most successful plaintiff's lawyers in America until he went into politics. Democratic Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. has been chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which handles the confirmation hearings for each attorney general nominee. Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton practiced law back in Arkansas and got to know several prosecutors during her White House years, notably Kenneth W. Starr.

In Britain, the opposition party maintains a "shadow Cabinet" of parliamentarians who are responsible for formulating policy for each government department, and the shadow minister may become the actual minister if the party gains power. So citizens have a pretty good idea what to expect when they vote in the Tories or the Laborites.

But on this side of the Atlantic, we can only guess what lies in store. In the case of the attorney general, the surprises are rarely pleasant ones.

Bill Clinton chose Janet Reno, an obscure local prosecutor, only after his first two choices, Kimba Wood and Zoe Baird, went down in flames. Ronald Reagan gave the job to William French Smith, a pal who had been his personal lawyer. Richard M. Nixon chose his campaign manager, John Mitchell, who became the first attorney general ever to go to prison. John F. Kennedy picked his younger brother. This last nomination is one of the few that look better now than they did at first.

Given the dismal experience with Mr. Gonzales, it's especially important for the next president to choose someone with sterling credentials, a commitment to excellence and independent judgment. That may be what the candidates expect from Mr. Bush's attorney general. But when it comes to picking their own, history suggests, they may set the bar slightly lower. If so, we ought to know now.


Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is