Let's say you are an intelligent, successful federal prosecutor from an elite law school and possessing all of the important political contacts in Washington, D.C. An election occurs. Your party wins, and the president-elect begins to put together a cabinet. One day you receive a call from the transition team. Senior aides want to know if you are interested in becoming the next U.S. attorney general.
You take it, right? Wrong. You tell the president-elect's people that they have the wrong number. Then you go radio silent until they stop calling.
I provide such advice because the office of attorney general has become the most dangerous position within the modern cabinet. The A.G. is today a prime target for partisans on both sides of the political aisle. Bad press, ugly confrontations with Congress and relentless questioning of one's motives are now part of the job description. And I haven't even gotten to independent counsels.
Just take a look at the ugliness surrounding some of our best known A.G.s over the past 50 years:
Bobby Kennedy: Charges of nepotism and worse clouded the young Kennedy's two and a half year tenure at Justice. Bobby Kennedy was slow to civil rights and decidedly laissez-faire on civil liberties during a tumultuous time in U.S. history. J. Edgar Hoover's constant meddling and aggressive dislike of the Kennedys made life difficult for America's 64th attorney general.
Ramsey Clark: The 66th attorney general was the most progressive of the lot and became "Public Enemy No. 1" for conservatives during the LBJ Administration. He later became a celebrated (on the far left) defender of the North Vietnamese (whom he visited in 1972) and notorious mass murderers such as Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein, whom he labeled "courageous." A charter member of the "Blame America First" crowd.
John Mitchell: A war hero, noted municipal bond specialist and successful presidential campaign manager to Richard Nixon, our 67th attorney general was found guilty of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury due to his role in the Watergate break-in and cover up. He served 19 months in a federal minimum security prison.
Elliot Richardson and Robert Bork: Fans of Watergate remember it well. Solicitor General Bork became acting attorney general in order to carry out the "Saturday Night Massacre" (firing) of Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox following Cox's request for audio tapes of President Nixon's Oval Office conversations. Bork was next in line because then Attorney General Elliott Richardson resigned rather than carry out the order to fire Cox. Bork's willingness to follow orders came back to haunt him during Senate confirmation hearings on his unsuccessful nomination to the Supreme Court.
Ed Meese: This charter member of Ronald Reagan's inner circle served with distinction in the Reagan gubernatorial administration, Reagan transition team and Reagan administration, ultimately becoming our 75th attorney general. Alas, this well respected conservative was forced to resign while under investigation (regarding a pipeline deal in the Middle East) by a special prosecutor.
Janet Reno: Our first female A.G. did not have an easy go of it. The Waco siege disaster, the armed seizure and repatriation of 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez to Cuba and (an ultimately unsuccessful) contempt of Congress censure over impeachment-related documents made our 78th attorney general a convenient target for Congressional Republicans. She ultimately lost a gubernatorial primary before retiring from politics.
John Ashcroft: Recall the strange tale wherein Mr. Ashcroft's Justice Department ruled a domestic intelligence program illegal immediately prior to the A.G. becoming violently ill with pancreatitis. When President George W. Bush subsequently sent his chief of staff and counsel to Mr. Ashcroft's bedside to have him rescind the ruling, our arch-conservative 79th attorney general refused. Mr. Ashcroft resigned seven months later.
Alberto Gonzales: The former Texas Supreme Court Justice became the post-9/11 poster boy for civil libertarians from the right and left when he presided over administration initiatives regarding expanded warrantless surveillance and enhanced interrogation techniques some believed to be torture. Relentless bipartisan criticism led to his resignation after two and a half controversial years.
Eric Holder: The only attorney general to be "censured" by Congress is daily pulverized in the right wing press. The uber-liberal Mr. Holder is the front man for the Obama administration's campaign for unilateral regulatory actions that (unfortunately for him and the president) have become fodder for a startling series of 9-0 Supreme Court strike-downs. But as importantly, Mr. Holder's Justice Department possesses the key to what is arguably the worst scandal of the Obama era — the targeting of conservative groups for specialized treatment on the basis of political expression.
Of course, there have been relatively quiet government tenures along the way. Griffin Bell ('77 to '79), Ben Civiletti ('79 to '81), Dick Thornburgh ('88 to '91) and William Bar ('91 to '93) come to mind. The fact you may not remember their time in office so well is probably as good a compliment as any I can provide.
Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the author of "Turn this Car Around" and "America: Hope for Change" — books about national politics. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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