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GOP Downplays Conservative Critique of Gonzales

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, co-host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Today President Bush named former Senator Fred Thompson to shepherd his upcoming Supreme Court pick through the nomination process. Thompson is a Republican from Tennessee and also an actor, most famously on the television program "Law & Order." The president has said that he won't name a potential successor to Sandra Day O'Connor until he returns from Europe. But there has been a lot of talk in Washington about one man, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. And according to today's New York Times, the White House and Senate Republicans are asking conservative groups to lay off the AG. David Kirkpatrick wrote that story today, along with Carl Hulse.

And, David Kirkpatrick, welcome to the program.

Mr. DAVID KIRKPATRICK (The New York Times): Good to be here.

SIEGEL: First of all, what have the conservative groups been saying about Gonzales?

Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Well, they think he would be a terrible choice for the Supreme Court. And they think he would be a terrible choice, in large part, because they suspect that they--well, at the very least they don't know where he stands on abortion. There's some evidence that he may have, in the past, been a little bit too deferential for their taste to precedents and laws on the subject of parental notification. But, really, where they're coming from is just they don't want anybody they don't know. What you hear again and again from a lot of conservatives is seven of the sitting justices have been appointed by Republican presidents, and they keep making decisions which are too liberal for the taste of conservatives. So this time they want somebody bankable. A running joke in conservative circles has been, you know--David Souter is a real nemesis of theirs because he was appointed by a Republican president but who...

SIEGEL: The elder President Bush.

Mr. KIRKPATRICK: The elder--right. He was appointed by the elder President Bush, but he often rules not to their liking. And so their joke is `How do you spell David Souter in Spanish? Alberto Gonzales.'

SIEGEL: (Laughs) Now that's--this is what's being said about Attorney General Gonzales. What about the response from the White House?

Mr. KIRKPATRICK: The White House and the Senate leadership--they have two messages for their conservative allies, and the first one is that, `We should all just take a deep breath and, for now, emphasize fairness, dignity, a respectable process.' They don't want to turn this into an election or a trial. The Democrats want to turn this into an election or a trial. And then the second thing is: `Why do you guys, you conservatives--why do you guys keep talking about specific nominees? You're just going to tie down the president's hands. And, what's more, could you please lay off Gonzales, who happens to be the president's friend?'

SIEGEL: Which the president made very clear to USA Today...

Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Yeah.

SIEGEL: ...saying, `He is my friend, and be quiet about it.' Well, you report in The New York Times today about a number of conference calls. What's happening in all of these?

Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Well, there are about five regular conference calls among representatives of various conservative groups to plot strategy and try to get their messages straight and work to prepare for this battle over the next Supreme Court confirmation. And on some of those calls emissaries from the White House Counsel's Office and from the Senate leadership or the Judiciary Committee will talk about what they see as the schedule and the messages that they'd like to get out to the public about what's going to be happening.

SIEGEL: Now all of these calls to cool off the rhetoric, are they having any effect? Do you get a sense that the rhetoric is cooling off and the conservative groups are going to be more calm about Attorney General Gonzales?

Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Well, whether or not the rhetoric is hot or not is a matter of opinion. I think a lot of the conservative groups would say that they're speaking very politely but about issues that are important to them, about the phrase `under God' in the Pledge of Allegiance, about partial-birth abortion and parental notification, and that it's not necessarily heated rhetoric to bring up the substantive issues that they think are at stake here. Whether it's having any effect, whether people are actually going to lay off Alberto Gonzales and stop talking about those issues, I think not. A lot of the conservative groups really approach this as an important matter of principle with a lot of stake, and they're not going to step down just because the White House asks them to.

SIEGEL: David Kirkpatrick, thanks a lot for talking with us today.

Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: David Kirkpatrick covers the Congress for The New York Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Robert Siegel
Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.