Through months of congressional questioning, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has given few explanations for the scandals that have rocked his tenure at the Justice Department.
So it may not be surprising that when the 52-year-old former Texas judge strode to the podium this morning to announce his resignation from his post, he offered the public little insight into his decision.
"Even my worst days as attorney general have been better than my father's best," Gonzales told a packed room of reporters. His parents were migrant workers.
Whatever Gonzales's official reasons (he took no questions), his departure—which follows that of more than six other top agency officials—could help resuscitate the Justice Department's beleaguered image.
"It is my hope that the attorney general's resignation will signal the beginning of a real change in the Department of Justice," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said in a statement.
But Gonzales's announcement may not be enough to put an end to simmering congressional probes. Democrats have already vowed to continue their inquiries over the firing of a number of U.S. attorneys.
President Bush announced that the Solicitor General Paul Clement will serve as acting attorney general when Gonzales leaves Sept. 17. Bush could keep Clement for the remainder of his term. But some administration insiders say that to restore confidence in the department, the president will need to move quickly to find a permanent replacement with broad support.
Insiders say the White House is likely to turn to Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, a former federal judge and head of the criminal division, who has already breezed through a Senate confirmation.
One of eight children in a family of Mexican immigrants, Gonzales grew up in Texas. A member of a law firm, he was picked to be counsel to then-Gov. George Bush in 1995. That began a quick assent, first to the state Supreme Court and then to Washington, where Gonzales became President Bush's White House counsel until his nomination for attorney general.
Gonzales's loyalty to Bush may have catapulted him to the highest echelons of government. But his closeness to the president also helped trigger his quick fall. Trouble began earlier this year after Democrats raised questions about why eight U.S. attorneys were summarily fired in December. A parade of subpoenas and congressional testimony only further muddied the department's image with revelations that partisan alliances and ideology played a role in the hiring and firing of career positions among immigration judges and in the civil rights division.
Gonzales's own testimony before Congress did little to stanch the growing chorus of bipartisan critics who saw his continued tenure as the biggest stumbling block to the department's recovery. But until today, at least publicly, Gonzales remained firm, telling senators just last month that, "since I have never been one to quit, I decided that the best course of action was to remain here and fix the problems."
Today, he's left that problem to someone else.