By accepting his resignation, however, the White House must have decided it has suffered the Gonzales Justice Department enough. The candidates mentioned as potential replacements fall into three much safer categories: climbers, old hands, and courtesy runners.
Climbers: Whenever the Great Mentioner speaks, the first names to leap off the wires are usually those who want the job most or have told the most people they want it. No matter what Gonzales has done with the place, attorney general has always been a job worth wanting. The name mentioned most often is a celebrated job climber, Michael Chertoff, who gave up lifetime tenure as a federal judge to become Homeland Security secretary. Chertoff has double the incentive, because his own gut tells him the DHS job is bound to end in disaster.
Another climber on the list is Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Chris Cox, who certainly knows how to time the market. After 16 years in Congress, Cox bolted for the SEC in the summer of 2005, leaving his Republican colleagues behind to rediscover life in the minority. If Chertoff gets Justice, Cox would no doubt be happy at Homeland Security, where he could take his chances with al-Qaida after two years of dealing with Sarbanes-Oxley.
Don't count out the climber who scampered up several rungs today: Paul Clement, who moves from solicitor general to acting attorney general. Clement is only 41—younger than Gonzales, older than Bobby Kennedy—but as a former Senate judiciary committee staffer, he might receive a certain amount of congressional courtesy.
Old Hands: Law is not the world's oldest profession, but it may be the best profession to grow old in. The legal community respects its elders, who are assumed to have wisdom, judgment, independence—in short, the virtues Gonzales lacked.
The Bush administration doesn't have the same respect for those virtues—as Fred Fielding, the old hand who succeeded Gonzales and Miers as White House counsel, has discovered. But for months, several familiar names have made the rounds as possible replacements. Ted Olson has argued countless cases before the Supreme Court (including Bush v. Gore) as solicitor general and a private lawyer. Larry Thompson, who would be the first African-American attorney general, was John Ashcroft's deputy. George Terwilliger (another Bush v. Gore veteran) served as deputy attorney general and briefly acting attorney general under Bush I.
Of course, it's not clear how much any of these men would want the job under the current circumstances. After all, an old hand is a climber who never made a bad career move.
Courtesy Runners: With so much else to worry about, the Bush White House doesn't really care who runs Justice, either. They just want Gonzales to take the damage with him.
So, don't be surprised if Bush's only litmus test for the job is the ability to be easily confirmed for it. Ironically, that was the brilliance of Bush's first pick for attorney general, John Ashcroft, whose Senate background guaranteed swift confirmation even for what seemed back then like a breathtakingly conservative appointment.
These days, there must be a few Republicans who—like Chris Cox in 2005—wouldn't mind being thrown a lifeline. Two in particular come to mind. Fred Thompson is already bored with running for president before his campaign has started. He seems miscast as a presidential candidate, but he was born to play the role of attorney general. As a former senator and out-of-work federal prosecutor, Thompson wouldn't even have to audition.
Sam Brownback is a distinguished lawyer, a member of the judiciary committee, and, like Ashcroft, a principled conservative. But the race for the Republican nomination is such a circus, the poor fellow lost the Iowa straw poll to a flip-flopper and a diet peddler. Why should Brownback stick around to watch Romney outspend him 10-1 on oppo, when he could run Justice and the FBI, the largest opposition-research department in American history?