Leading Article: Another nail in the coffin of a moribund presidency

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A lberto Gonzales's departure as US Attorney General yesterday prompted a scathingly terse reaction from the Democratic Presidential candidate John Edwards: "Better late than never." It summed up the feelings of most people in Washington – Democrats, Republicans, and even the senior staff of Mr Gonzales's own Justice Department – about the fate of the man who has arguably been the worst holder of the post in the modern era.

His resignation is one of those events so long anticipated that when they finally happen they come as a surprise. His arrival was a small moment in history – the first Hispanic to become the country's top legal and law enforcement official. But from the outset his tenure was tarred by a series of scandals that dented public faith in the department as an impartial arm of government that upholds the Constitution. More often it has appeared to serve the partisan political interests of the White House.

The single event that precipitated his departure was the firing last year, at the behest of the White House, of nine US attorneys (state-level public prosecutors appointed by the government) on blatantly political grounds. But long before that his position was precarious, not least thanks to his role in the constitutionally illegal programme of warrantless domestic wire-tapping ordered by President Bush as part of the "war on terror".

Mr Gonzales's evasive and sometimes contradictory testimony during recent Congressional hearings appalled not only Democrats but also senior Republicans on Capitol Hill, and led to the spectacle of a sitting attorney general being warned that he might face perjury charges. Had he not resigned, impeachment might have been a very real possibility. And yet it seemed he still had the confidence of the one person who ultimately mattered. Just three weeks ago, Mr Bush reiterated his full confidence in Mr Gonzales. It seemed he would never go. Now, belatedly – but in retrospect inevitably – he has.

It is tempting to see the resignation as merely another nail in the coffin of a discredited and moribund administration – and up to a point it is. Mr Bush, the man who relies on the loyalty of a small circle of long-standing and trusted aides, has now lost another close retainer and friend, just two weeks after his political mastermind, Karl Rove, announced his departure. Whoever is nominated to succeed him – the most mentioned name is Michael Chertoff, a former senior Justice Department official who is now Secretary of Homeland Security – will face a bruising confirmation process before the Democrat-controlled Senate. Democrats will only be encouraged to dig deeper into the wire-tapping controversy.

Paradoxically, however, the White House and the administration could emerge stronger from this crisis. The most immediate beneficiary will be the Justice Department itself, perceived during Mr Gonzales's tenure as little more than an arm of the White House political operation headed by Mr Rove. Rarely has morale at the department been so low. Under almost any successor it can only improve.

As for Mr Bush, he now has a chance to appoint a chief law officer who commands the respect of both parties. An imaginative choice by the President might not only avoid confrontation with Democrats. It could rekindle an almost vanished willingness to co-operate between the parties on Capitol Hill, and improve the chances of this lame-duck administration doing something worthwhile during its final 17 months in power. But nothing is certain. Mr Bush came to office pledging to be a "uniter not a divider". Alas, he has honoured that promise almost exclusively in the breach. The preferred political tactics of Mr Rove were wedge-driving and scaremongering, and nothing that a combative, truculent President said yesterday suggests he knows any other way to do business.