Memo to Fox Fanatics and All Other Defenders of Alberto Gonzales: Your Partisanship is Showing.

Fox News and its talk radio echoes, led by Rush Limbaugh, are among the staunchest defenders of the scandal-plagued Attorney General.

But that defense is not based on conservative values or ideas. Rather, it is a “my-president-right-or-wrong” rallying around an embattled Bush administration. This is old-school, maximum-leader politics, of a sort that places loyalty to a man over loyalty to the truth or to the Republic.

According to Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, “(The) U.S. attorney thing is absurd, a fabricated event designed to hurt the president and make it easier for the Democrats to consolidate their power and elect a president in 2008.”

Fox’s Sean Hannity says the whole scandal is a production of “the mainstream liberal media.”

Apart from the trouble O’Reilly and Hannity have determining whether Gonzales’ problems are a Democratic scheme or a media production, they are at least on point when it comes to repeating the official line from the White House. That line holds that someone other than Alberto Gonzales is to blame for Alberto Gonzales’ problems.

But that’s not what genuine conservatives are saying.

The Fox personalities and their buddies on the AM dial may be reading talking points. But they are not reading conservative talking points. Some of the most right-wing members of the House and Senate — led by New Hampshire Senator John Sununu (Lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 93.2)– have called on the attorney general to step down.

In recent days, key rank-and-file Republicans in the House have begun calling for Gonzales to leave. These members form the political backbone of the conservative movement.

They feel betrayed by Gonzales — and, though they will not always say so publicly, by a Bush administration that has treats Congress will so little respect that it would dismiss the Attorney General’s lies as matters demanding nothing more than “clarification.”

Consider the comments of Nebraska Republican Lee Terry.

Terry had been a Gonzales defender. But after the attorney general tried to claim on Friday that he had been aware his staff was drawing up plans for the firings — even though top Justice Department aides are testifying that Gonzales was actively engaged in the process — Terry said, “I trusted him before, but I can’t now.”

Before Gonzales began mounting a “defense” that actually make him appear to be more guilty of abusing his authority and lying to Congress, Terry explains, “My views were that this was Democrat posturing and a witch hunt.”

Now, Terry says, “My trust in him in that position has taken a hit because of these contradictory statements by him.”

The bottom line from the Republican congressman on Gonzales: “Frankly, until these statements came out that contradicted his first statement, I was backing him, saying that he shouldn’t resign. Now I think that he should.”

Terry has a 90 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union, making him one of the most ideologically right-wing members of the House. In fact, he was often rated as more conservative than former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, before DeLay’s exit on ethics charges.

So is the Gonzales controversy a Democratic fantasy or a liberal media pipedream. Or is this the most serious scandal involving a sitting attorney general since Republican President Warren Harding’s man at the Justice Department, Attorney General Harry “Teapot Dome” Daugherty, was forced from office in 1924, after a Republican-controlled Senate began to pummel him?

If only there was an authoritative conservative voice that could sort things out. Why, here’s the latest editorial from the nation’s most widely circulated and respected conservative journal of opinion, The National Review:

Time to Go

By The Editors

The story of the eight fired U.S. attorneys has been relentlessly overhyped. We do not know that any of them was fired because the administration put its political interests ahead of his or her prosecutorial judgment. Sen. Dick Durbin’s recent insinuation that the attorneys who were not fired had kept their jobs by compromising their prosecutions was outrageous.

If congressional Democrats are wrong to bluster, however, they are within their rights to investigate. They may yet turn up enough evidence to prove that some of the firings were improper violations of political norms.

We do not need more evidence, however, to reach a conclusion about the suitability of Alberto Gonzales for the leadership of the Department of Justice. While we defended him from some of the outlandish charges made during his confirmation hearings, we have never seen evidence that he has a fine legal mind, good judgment, or managerial ability. Nor has his conduct at any stage of this controversy gained our confidence.

His claim not to have been involved in the firings suggests that he was either deceptive or inexcusably detached from the operations of his own department. His deputy, Paul McNulty, insulted the fired prosecutors by claiming that they had been asked to resign for “performance-related issues.” But many of them received good reviews, and none of them said he was told about any disappointment with his performance. If Justice wanted to clear them out to make way for new blood, or to find attorneys who shared their prosecutorial priorities, that would have been perfectly legitimate. By saying what he did, McNulty guaranteed that the fired attorneys would lash out in the press. Gonzales’s latest tactic has been to concede that improper motives may have played a role in the firings, but to blame his underlings for any misconduct and to pledge to get to the bottom of it.

What little credibility Gonzales had is gone. All that now keeps him in office, save the friendship of the president, is the conviction of many Republicans that removing him would embolden the Democrats. It is an overblown fear. The Democrats will pursue scandals, real or invented, whether or not Gonzales stays. But they have an especially inviting target in Gonzales. He cannot defend the administration and its policies even when they deserve defense. Alberto Gonzales should resign. The Justice Department needs a fresh start.

Reasonable observers might differ with some of the points made by The National Review. But one thing is clear: The debate over whether Gonzales should stay is no longer a left-versus-right dispute.

Honest conservatives want Alberto Gonzales to step down.

Only on-bended-knee apologists for the Bush administration’s most wretched excesses are now defending the Attorney General.


John Nichols’ new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders’ Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson hails it as a “nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe ‘heroic medicine’ that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to ‘reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'”