WASHINGTON -- It's nice to see a president willing to make it clear that he doesn't appreciate attacks on a friend even when they come from supposed allies. The friend happens to be Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and those doing the criticizing are neo-conservatives who have already warned that Gonzales is an unacceptable candidate for the Supreme Court largely because he isn't correct on the issue of abortion.
He is too moderate, seems to be the concern.
If George W. Bush has made anything clear, it's that he doesn't push easily. One may question whether this characteristic is beneficial, citing Iraq as the result of stubbornness mixed with a sense of vengeance. But knowing where the chief executive stands without equivocation is not such a bad thing when one recalls Oval Office occupants who left a leadership vacuum by spending much of their energy marching up hills and down again on important issues.
The president's message to lay off Gonzales -- delivered to conservative groups gearing up for the Senate confirmation fight over Bush's choice to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor -- couldn't have been clearer.
Whether it was meant to indicate he would name whomever he pleased, it certainly came across that way. At the same time, the White House has reinforced Bush's appeal for a civilized confirmation process, with presidential aides and Republican staffers on Capitol Hill calling on conservative groups to take the high road on whomever the president picks.
Good luck with that.
Groups on the right and the left have raised big bucks to conduct their respective campaigns for or against any nominee. Both sides have litmus tests they consider crucial to their support or opposition. Conservatives particularly are focused on a desire for a nominee who is "right" on social issues like gay marriage, abortion, relaxation of the doctrine of church and state, and so forth. They aren't subtle in explaining that their all-out support of Bush in the last election was a key to his winning, and therefore their views should be paramount in his considerations of a candidate.
Liberals want any nominee to be at least moderate on the very same issues. Their major worry, of course, is the possible erosion or even reversal of the court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. O'Connor was a key moderate who often joined the liberal bloc when it came to social rulings.
The president, a born-again Christian and opponent of abortion rights, has been quiet about what qualifications he demands in a nominee other than to say the candidate must be one who interprets the Constitution strictly. So the betting is that the nomination will go to one who at least shares some of Bush's positions.
The president clearly could live with Gonzales, who was White House counsel before becoming attorney general. Caving in to the gurus of conservatism clearly isn't in Bush's nature. In fact, the pressure just might sway him to nominate Gonzales, who would be the first Hispanic on the high court.
On the other side, liberals argue that Gonzales' decisions on how to treat prisoners from the Iraq invasion make him undesirable. He seemed to indicate that the rules of the Geneva Convention didn't apply.
Confirmation hearings seldom produce answers to a prospective justice's views on key issues. Opponents and supporters must necessarily rely on a candidate's record -- and if that was obscure, to guess at where the nominee may stand on any particular issue.
X Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.