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Gonzales receives praise, standing ovations at farewell ceremony

  • Story Highlights
  • He calls Justice Department "place of inspiration," warns of challenges ahead
  • Outgoing attorney general announced his resignation last month
  • Speakers praise Gonzales' humility, even-going demeanor
  • Many lawmakers had called on Gonzales to quit after U.S. attorney firings
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From Terry Frieden
CNN Justice Producer
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Attorney General Alberto Gonzales received an emotional and staunchly supportive send-off in the final hour of his last day on the job at the Justice Department on Friday.

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Attorney General Alberto Gonzales gets emotional during a farewell ceremony on his last day of work Friday.

With a handful of protesters noisily celebrating his departure on the sidewalks outside, Gonzales was praised by no fewer than 10 Justice lieutenants and agency heads -- some with their voices cracking.

Gonzales himself at one point wiped tears from his eyes and praised the Justice Department as "a place of inspiration" in his farewell speech.

But he also expressed concern about challenges ahead, noting his day had begun -- as always -- with an intelligence briefing.

"As I depart, I wish -- I wish that I can tell you that work is done. That there are no threats, but I cannot. Our enemy is resourceful and determined, and I will wonder and worry when I'm gone what is being said in those briefings," Gonzales said. Video Watch Gonzales say goodbye »

Among those on hand for the ceremony were Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, National Security Adviser Steven Hadley and former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card.

Also in the audience was Ted Olson, the former solicitor general who is thought to be on the short list of potential successors to Gonzales.

That list also includes current Solicitor General Paul Clement, who was among the speakers on the dais giving Gonzales the backing he had failed to find during recent contentious hearings on Capitol Hill.

Acting Deputy Attorney General Craig Morford captured the crowd's attention as he recalled a meeting four months ago in Chicago where he first met Gonzales.

Morford and other U.S. attorneys were at the meeting to privately scold Gonzales for his treatment of the prosecutorial ranks and resolve the divide between Washington and those in the field.

Morford then surprised the crowd with a visibly warm embrace of the man to whom he had given "frank and candid" advice.

"It could have been a difficult meeting, but what saved it was the humility and grace of the man who called that meeting. He listened. He came back to Washington and made changes," Morford said.

And then, pausing, voice cracking, Morford managed to say, "He never once held it against us. If he had, I wouldn't be standing here today."

Almost every speaker made much of Gonzales' humility, his refusal to be impressed with the trappings of office and his even-going demeanor, even while taking a bruising from angry Democrats while getting little backing from fellow Republicans.

One former Justice official with a mixed view of the Gonzales tenure watched as the crowd erupted into two genuine and spontaneous standing ovations for Gonzales.

"I'd say at least a portion of this is a message aimed directly at his critics," the ex-official said.

Gonzales announced his resignation last month, and President Bush said he accepted it with reluctance.

Many members of Congress from both sides of the aisle had called on Gonzales to quit after the firing of several U.S. attorneys in 2006.

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In the investigation into the U.S. attorney firings, the Senate Judiciary Committee looked into whether the administration may have fired some or all of the U.S. attorneys for political reasons.

Gonzales also was at the center of a dispute over the controversial no-warrant eavesdropping program authorized by President Bush. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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