The inevitable and too long delayed end of Alberto Gonzales’s tenure as attorney general came to pass this morning. The surprise was not that he left but that he had held onto his job for so long. As long ago as last March, when Congress began looking into the firing of U.S. attorneys, Senator Charles Schumer of New York, the leading Democratic critic of Gonzales, opined on “Meet the Press” that he wouldn’t be surprised if, in a week, Gonzales were no longer attorney general. Instead, six senior Justice Department officials submitted their resignations, including Deputy Attorney General Kyle Sampson and Gonzales’s own chief of staff. Sampson later testified, “I don’t think the Attorney General’s statement that he wasn’t involved in any discussion of U. S. Attorney removals was accurate.”

What made Gonzales’s position untenable was his own lackluster performance in testifying before Congress and his unpersuasive attempts to defend himself publicly. His first reaction was to call the furor over the firings as “an overblown personnel matter.” He was a master of the passive voice (“mistakes were made,” “incomplete information was transmitted”). And his portrayal of his own role made himself out be an indifferent administrator who claimed never to have seen key documents.

I don’t think it’s any mystery why he left now. Congress is in recess. Investigations are in limbo. It’s a slow news period. If he waited until after Congress came back to the Capitol, he would again find himself under attack by Democratic lawmakers and in danger of losing more support among Republicans. He was a liability to their reelection. I have been working on a piece for the magazine about John Cornyn, and while I haven’t talked to him today, I’m sure he’s greatly relieved that Gonzales won’t be a millstone around his neck in the ’08 campaign. Even if the investigation into the firing of the U.S. attorneys goes on — and it surely will, with a battle over executive privilege looming over the testimony of Karl Rove and Harriet Miers — Gonzales is no longer the bull’s eye on the target.

The reason why Alberto Gonzales got to be attorney general was that he was totally loyal to President Bush. The reason why he is no longer attorney general is the same. Neither he nor the president appreciated that, unlike other political virtues, loyalty has a dark side. A president may think he wants cabinet officials who will follow him blindly, but he is better served by someone who defines loyalty in a broader sense–not just something he owes the president, but also something he owes the country. Gonzales never understood this. He acted as attorney general exactly as he had acted as White House counsel, which was as a lawyer representing his client. Sorry, but that is not the job description. In his job as the president’s lawyer, he had asserted that it would be unconstitutional for Congress to pass a law (such as a prohibition against torture) that would limit the president’s power to act as commander-in-chief. He advised that the Geneva Convention was (in part) obsolete. One did not have the sense that Gonzales wrestled with these issues; he just delivered what the client wanted. Is it any surprise that when the White House wanted to fire U.S. attorneys for reasons that appeared to be political, Gonzales raised no objection? His moral compass pointed only to the White House.