The politicization of the U.S. Attorney's Office happened long before the Bush administration.
On June 25, the Senate welcomed its 100th member, Wyoming's John Barrasso. He had been appointed to a vacancy by Gov. Dave Freudenthal, a former U.S. attorney, after being selected from a pool of prospective candidates that included Matt Mead, the state's U.S. attorney until he resigned to be considered for the vacant Senate seat.
In the Senate, Barrasso was in the company of several other former U.S. attorneys, including Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Ted Stevens of Alaska and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, and immediately found himself thrown into the ongoing controversy surrounding the Bush administration's firings of U.S. attorneys.
A physician by training, Barrasso must have found the scene a bit confusing at first. He came from a state where the U.S. attorney's post recently had served as a platform for politically ambitious public officials, and joined a body whose ranks included several former U.S. attorneys. Yet somehow his new colleagues were expending considerable time and energy over the question of whether politics played a role in the administration's firing of eight U.S. attorneys.
It would have been hard for a Senate newcomer to determine which side was being more disingenuous-the obfuscating Republican administration that tried to deny the political component of the firings or the Democratic senators feigning outrage at the revelation. Both surely were aware that for at least two decades the U.S. Attorney's Office has been a springboard for aspiring politicians as well as a plum for politically connected lawyers.
Two governors, Freudenthal and Janet Napolitano of Arizona, prepped with a stint in the U.S. Attorney's Office. Two other governors won by defeating former U.S. attorneys. Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher is not a former U.S. attorney, but he selected one for lieutenant governor on his ticket in 2003. During the past decade, governors in Massachusetts, Oklahoma and Rhode Island have been former U.S. attorneys, and so were three of the 13 House impeachment managers in 1999. This list is by no means complete. It overlooks many other politically minded U.S. attorneys, such as Clinton appointee Betty Richardson, who in 2002 ran unsuccessfully for Congress in Idaho, and Bush appointee J.B. Van Hollen, who was elected as Wisconsin's attorney general in 2006.
None of this is to suggest that the U.S. Attorney's Office is staffed by political hacks or to imply that their work product is tainted by political considerations. In fact, much evidence has come forward in the investigation into the firings that suggests the opposite. Some of the fired appointees might have fallen out of favor because they failed to pursue allegations of Democratic voting fraud vigorously enough. But to contend that appointment and firing decisions are typically divorced from politics-or to pretend to be surprised that they are not-is to stretch the limits of credulity.
The list of the eight fired U.S. attorneys at the center of the controversy is instructive. Several were by no means political players, but a few were, and these prosecutors were not political naifs. Bud Cummins had made a respectable run for Congress in Arkansas. David Iglesias at one time was a rising star in New Mexico Republican politics, with an unsuccessful bid for statewide office already under his belt. In Washington state, John McKay is now frequently mentioned as a potential candidate for elected office. In May, he delivered a speech at the Mainstream Republicans of Washington convention, his political viability enhanced by his firing.
If McKay decides to run in 2008, it's safe to assume he won't be the only former U.S. attorney doing so. In fact, there could be one at the top of the Republican ticket: Rudy Giuliani, former U.S. attorney for New York's Southern District.
Charles Mahtesian is editor of The Almanac of American Politics.