With the resignation of U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Michael Chertoff is being eyed for the position. He would become the first Jewish U.S. Attorney General since Edward Levi from 1975-1977. Levi was a seriously distinguished jurist born in Chicago, Illinois, the son and grandson of rabbis. He received his A.B. Phi Beta Kappa from the undergraduate college of the University of Chicago in 1932, and later his J.D. at the University of Chicago Law School in 1935.
Michael Chertoff is also the son and grandson of Rabbis, and could become the first Jew appointed to this position in 30 years.
When Chertoff was nominated as Secretary of Homeland Defense worried members of the Jewish community thought that having a Jew in such a prominent position might be “bad for the Jews”. After all, if anything goes wrong, they can blame the Jews. Other more enlightened opinions pointed out that “they” already blame the Jews for everything.
The main question remains will Chertoff be good for America? Can he bring respectability and the aura of professionalism to a position thoroughly politicized and tarnished? Chertoff had a very successful run as a US Attorney, garnering praise from Dems and Republicans. However, Chertoff then became special counsel for the Senate Whitewater Committee that spent millions and millions trying to bring down Clinton. Chertoff also co-authored the controversial Patriot Act. He led the charge against Arthur Anderson, the former accounting house, that went down with Enron.
However, my own memories of Chertoff go back two years, when he oversaw FEMA’s disastrous relief efforts in the wake of Hurrican Katrina. FEMA, which had been rolled into the Department of Homeland Security, failed. Failed big time not only in immediate response, but in every step afterwards. Billions wasted, trailers of food and water never reaching people. FEMA even prevented relief from reaching people in some cases.
In his defense, we can say that Chertoff inherited a bad egg in FEMA. The agency and its director Michael Brown were incapable of dealing with the scope of the tragedy, and unable to recognize that and act. However, Chertoff let Brown run the failed rescue and relief efforts for over a week, before recalling him to DC. Nearly 2000 people died in Hurricane Katrina.
Chertoff’s record of public service, and high level of personal integrity, point to him being an excellent candidate. Chertoff’s close affiliation with Bush, the Patriot Act, and FEMA, are warning signs that he may not be able to repair the cratering damage called Alberto Gonzalez.