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Gonzales plays his part Keeping attorney general in place hinders Congress from wider inquiries

Good Republicans who don't yet want to go so far as to call for Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales to resign have begun referring to him, more in sorrow than in anger, as "a distraction."

Of course he is. That's the role Gonzales has been assigned in the damage control party that the entire Bush administration has become. As long as the focus is on the hangdog Gonzales and his apparent nonmanagement of the Justice Department, less attention will be paid to the White House political operation run by Karl Rove and its suspected mismanagement of the same department.

As long as Gonzales hangs on, Bush won't have to appoint another attorney general, and see that candidate's confirmation hearings become a tool for investigating everything Gonzales has touched since the beginning of the administration, from the Patriot Act and torture justifications to the apparently partisan decision to fire eight U.S. attorneys for the sin of not misusing their power to reward the president's friends and punish his enemies.

Being accused of politicizing the Justice Department, as Gonzales and Rove have been, is not precise. Every administration's Justice Department is politicized in the sense that the priorities it pursues -- immigration, say, or environmental quality -- are the result of the democratic and political process of choosing a president. The winner picks the fights.

But turning the Justice Department into an arm of the Republican National Committee, expecting its supposedly professional U.S. attorneys to respond to politicians' suggestions or requests that they pursue, or ignore, corruption cases in ways that boost their own chances at the polls while harming the image of Democrats, is not just wrong. It is the very definition of corruption -- using power to hold power.

The president's repeated statements that Gonzales fully responded to senators' questions left officials of both parties wondering aloud, off the record, if he had been watching the same Senate hearings as everyone else -- the one where an increasingly confused Gonzales said more than 50 times that he didn't remember what was going on when somebody, somewhere, decided to fire those eight prosecutors for reasons that still aren't clear.

Even if he didn't know then, if he had delegated such an important decision he certainly should have found out in time to tell the Senate Judiciary Committee and the American people what happened, and why. The fact that he still can't do that suggests not that he is incompetent, necessarily, but that the fog he has purposely enveloped himself in is intended to obscure everyone else's vision as well.

Gonzales, it seems, isn't going anywhere. He's doing the job the president wants just fine.

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