St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

New Attorney General Gonzales' style departs from predecessor's

By Associated Press
Published April 17, 2005

WASHINGTON - It has taken barely two months for the differences between Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and his predecessor, John Ashcroft, to come into clear view.

Gonzales is decidedly more low-key and conciliatory than Ashcroft, whom critics called intransigent and too eager to grab the spotlight.

The contrast was on display last week.

Gonzales sent a deputy to face reporters Wednesday to announce indictments in a terrorism case.

That was a duty the previous attorney general frequently reserved for himself.

The next day, Gonzales did something anathema to Ashcroft: He welcomed the head of the American Civil Liberties Union and other critics into his Justice Department office.

The ACLU had sought such a meeting with Ashcroft for four years. Gonzales consented to the gathering even though the ACLU has been critical of his role, while White House counsel, in setting Bush administration policy on the detention and treatment of terrorism suspects.

"It is a welcome change that he is trying to engage critics of the Justice Department," said Anthony Romero, the ACLU's executive director who attended the hourlong meeting.

The refrain has been similar on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers had complained that Ashcroft, a former Missouri senator, rarely accepted their invitations to testify before his onetime colleagues.

Yet some discordant notes have been heard.

In a mild rebuke, Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the Justice Department had not provided, even in a classified setting, detailed information about the use of surveillance provisions of the antiterrorism Patriot Act.

Meanwhile, people on both the right and left are watching to see whether Gonzales parts company with Ashcroft on important policy issues.

Staunchly antiabortion, Ashcroft also pressed for harsh penalties for criminals, sometimes ordering pursuit of the death penalty over prosecutors' objections.

Gonzales, 49, is seen by some as too moderate because of his votes, while a Texas Supreme Court justice, to allow teenage girls to get abortions without notifying their parents.

In his most notable decision involving the death penalty, he signed off this month on a plea agreement that spared the life of serial bomber Eric Rudolph.

Gonzales faces a difficult fight in Congress as he seeks to preserve sections of the Patriot Act. Many lawmakers say they worry the law gives the government too much power.

Ashcroft once said such concerns were unjustified - "phantoms of lost liberty," he called them - and detracted from the fight against terrorism.

Gonzales opposes all but marginal changes to the Patriot Act.

But, in a departure from Ashcroft, he repeated his call for debate on the law and defended his decision to meet with critics.

"I wanted to meet with them directly and hear from them directly and understand what their concerns were. I didn't want there to be any misunderstanding about what they are really worried about," Gonzales said.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.