Don't let Gonzales' record taint all Bush appointees

Posted: Tuesday, August 28, 2007

This isn't a popular thing to admit these days, but I thought President Bush had made a good pick when he selected Alberto Gonzales as attorney general. Many saw the Houston attorney as the epitome of Bush cronyism, but I saw the selection as the president putting somebody at Justice who could shoot straight with him about terrorism, the FBI, all sorts of law enforcement issues.

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I was wrong. We'll have to wait for history to show us when or if Bush's fellow Texan shot straight with him. What we know now is that Gonzales clearly lacked the political skill and leadership ability to survive in a high-profile post.

His failure may stem from the fact that he has been a lawyer, not a manager. But his ineptness at Justice has fed the image that Bush has surrounded himself with incompetents whom he should have left behind in Texas or never brought into his inner circle.

That feeling is so strong these days that Bush has become a caricature to some, like a bumbling Warren Harding. People who buy into this picture will use this episode to say, See, told you, he's a dunce.

The truth is more complex.

If you're going to buy into the idea that President Bush has surrounded himself with incompetent cronies, then you're going to have to explain away people such as Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes, former Budget Director Rob Portman and Deputy Budget Director Clay Johnson.

In one way or another, these people have been with George W. Bush since he first ran for governor or were part of his father's team or were friends from way back. They have earned high marks in their jobs from people across the aisle and, in some cases, around the world.

There also have been Bush pals who've handled tough assignments as ambassadors. Dallas attorney Bob Jordan stepped into Saudi Arabia immediately after 9/11 and steered a very sophisticated course. His successor in Saudi, Dallas businessman Jim Oberwetter, continued it by strengthening relations with Saudi Arabia while equally pressing the kingdom to modernize.

No easy task there, just as Bush pal Tony Garza has had to walk a fine line as our ambassador to Mexico. The Texan has pressed the Mexican government to do more about drug cartels while also making the case to Washington to modernize our immigration laws. Garza was Bush's first appointment as governor, but you don't hear charges of cronyism about him.

Neither do you hear crony complaints about Margaret Spellings, the education secretary. The Texan has been with Bush since he first started running for governor in 1994. Today, Democratic education leaders like Sen. Ted Kennedy and Democratic Rep. George Miller praise her for her handling of the No Child Left Behind Act.

She and Austin attorney Sandy Kress led the White House's effort to pass the education law in 2001, which drew both Democratic and Republican support. Now she's back at it with Kennedy and Miller to keep the bill alive while listening to the complaints about the measure.

My point is, there have been Bush pals who have made their mark and those who haven't. They aren't all Al Gonzaleses or Michael "Brownie" Browns, who have become the poster boys for Bush cronyism.

In fact, the Bush presidency took a turn for the worse when the ultimate Bush insider, Karen Hughes, returned to Austin in 2002. She's back now at the State Department, trying to breathe life into how America communicates to the rest of the world. But her presence was missed at the White House because she could speak plainly to the president about the mistakes she thought he was making with the broad majority of the public. After her exit, some Bushites tell me, Karl Rove had no equal before the president.

As a Bush backer and as an American, I'm as frustrated as the next person at this administration's problems. Some come from the president's stubbornness and impatience. But I don't buy the line that he's surrounded himself with a bunch of hacks who've yes-manned him. Gonzales and Brown aren't the only ones around his table.

• William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Contact him at

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