Oh my, but AG Gonzales seems to be in a bit of hot water these days. The U.S. Attorney "purge" scandal has prompted a number of senators to call for his resignation. (Senator Sununu, whose desire to deep-six broadcast flag regs was recently noted here, was the first Republican to do so openly; Senator Leahy, whose IP efforts are no doubt on temporary hiatus, is busy with the Judiciary Committee trying to extract the straight dope from those involved in the firings.) You can monitor the latest minutiae of the scandal at Talking Points Memo or see the AG's prognosis reduced to a single number on Slate's Gonz-o-meter. And in spite of it all, the White House continues to stand by Gonzales (for now anyway).
Gonzales's fealty to the White House has led a number of media outlets, and now countless bloggers, to label him Bush's consigliere. And yes, it's so accepted by now as to be conventional wisdom that Gonzales never made a clean break from his role as White House counsel, and still seems to consider himself the President's in-house lawyer. It's certainly clear that he has misguided loyalties; for Gonzales, the parochial policy agenda of the White House always seems to take precedence over the greater goal of serving the country and Justice (both the Department and, you know, the concept).
But the consigliere label, with its connotations of some sort of Machiavellian genius, gives Gonzales far too much credit. In the mafia lore from which the term entered the popular lexicon, a consigliere is more than just a loyal, trusted confidante. After all, even the lowliest of mob henchman are supposedly quite loyal (omerta and all that). What makes a consigliere is giving candid, frank, and thoughtful advice -- and having the boss actually heed that advice some of the time. A consigliere is the guy who tells the don the ugly truths he needs to hear. He's the guy who's pulling the levers behind the scenes; the one who could take over the whole operation tomorrow if anything ever happened to the boss -- if he's not already in fact running the show. Rove is a consigliere. Cheney is a consigliere.
Gonzales? He may aspire to such heights (or depths), and he probably relishes having such a grandiose title bestowed on him (by the New York Times, no less). But, come on. Alberto, in case you're reading, here's a clue: When the big guy's nickname for you is "Fredo," you're not his consigliere. (In fact, if some staffer asks you to go for a boat ride, you might want to make other plans....)
No, Gonzales's defining characteristic as AG has been his obedience, his unabashed willingness to give the White House the answer it wants, no matter what the question. Far from being the go-to guy when the President needs to do some real soul-searching, Gonzales has played the yes-man, the "me too" manservant, the Uncle Tambien (as it was put in a conversation the other day) in service of the fellow in the big white house up the street. If, as Brad Delong often laments, the administration is using 1984 as their operations manual, Gonzales's obsequiousness, his willingness to rationalize every White House whim, suggest he's cribbing pointers on "leadership" from Candide.
Mouthing whatever bullshit argument a client pays you to say plays into the popular stereotype of the legal profession, but it's a terrible disservice to one's client. Good counsel is more than a acting as a mere mouthpiece. Providing "counsel" involves giving guidance and advice, and at least occasionally pushing back and setting limits.
Gonzales doesn't do this. Unlike his predecessors (recall that Ashcroft pushed back on the NSA wiretapping issue from his own hospital bed), there is precious little evidence that Gonzales has put up the least resistance to any direction from the White House. Of course, it's possible that as more details of the current scandal(s) emerge, we'll learn that he did, but that no one at the White House listened to him. Either way, the bottom line is that even if Gonzales thinks he's still White House counsel, it doesn't seem as though anyone's turning to him for advice. Consigliere he ain't.