When Alberto Gonzales stepped down, the Tribune really lit into him. “President Bush has done a lousy job of picking attorney generals,” the editorial began. “His first, John Ashcroft, was a grandstanding ideologue who demonized his critics by saying their efforts ‘only aid terrorists.’ His second, Alberto Gonzales, was a longtime Texas pal of the president who saw his role as toadying to the White House.”

This is a little unfair to both men. It overlooks their finest hour — the March day in 2004 when Ashcroft was recovering from emergency surgery and Gonzales visited him in the hospital. Gonzales was White House counsel at the time. Jacob Sullum recounts the moment at the libertarian site Reason.com. Gonzales “did not bring flowers or balloons. He brought an argument,” says Sullum. Gonzales wanted Ashcroft to sign off on a new surveillance program. Ashcroft refused.

This was the same attorney general “who a few years before had slammed critics of the Patriot Act for trying to ‘scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty.'” And yet “at that moment he demonstrated an awareness of something Gonzales never seemed to understand. . . . He had a duty not just to represent the president’s interests but to uphold the rule of law.” That was Ashcroft. Alas, Gonzales as attorney general “showed his disloyalty to the principles that give us a government of laws and not of men.”

This much can be said for Gonzales: he gave the “grandstanding ideologue” who was his predecessor an opportunity to conduct himself — and thus be remembered — as a giant of constitutional moderation. It was a gallant, generous act. Few cabinet members have ever been willing to make their predecessors look better by making themselves look even worse. Now Gonzales needs a Gonzales, and with Democrats running the confirmation process he’s not likely to be so lucky.