With devotion to the president and the office, Alberto Gonzales ’82 tackles the complications and controversies of the White House counsel’s job.
Alberto Gonzales ’82 was back in Texas not long after he left for his first job outside his home state. He stood at the front of a lecture hall at Rice University, where as a youngster he had sold soft drinks in the football stadium. Now it was his alma mater, and he was a local boy made good, made famous even. And he spoke about who had made him good, who had made him famous. He was answering a question he gets a lot, about who his heroes are, and he answered it–at least at first–in a way a lot of people do. Though he had more reason than most to choose as heroes his parents: natives of Mexico with little education or money, who raised eight children in a two-bedroom house and, he noted, not once asked for help from the government. But he also called his boss a hero. It may sound self-serving, he said, but that doesn’t make it untrue. For he has seen his boss, who happens to be the president of the United States, not only as an employer, but as a statesman, a father, a friend, a mentor.
That admiration and respect for George W. Bush infuse everything Gonzales does in a job that is as unpredictable as it is demanding: the White House counsel, the lawyer for the president and for the presidency, a person with an imprint on almost everything that originates from the seat of executive power. The job has catapulted Gonzales to the center of attention and contention on such issues as judicial nominations, Iraq and executive privilege. It is the fourth time he has taken a job at the behest of Bush, his fourth once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, he says. And the Washington chatter indicates that it may not be the last: Gonzales, many say, is a leading contender to fill the next vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court. Such talk is flattering, Gonzales says, but he has enough to worry about now.
He painstakingly outlines those concerns in his speech, listing nine responsibilities of the job, including vetting people appointed to work in the White House, drafting legislation, monitoring litigation in the Department of Justice, developing policy, offering legal advice on national security matters and chairing the White House judicial selection committee. Then there are the responsibilities that can’t be anticipated, of which he’s had many.
Sometimes the job seems to entail, more than anything, responding to the crisis of the moment, he says in an interview with the Bulletin. He’s there in the meetings that drive the White House operation, answering legal questions when they come up. And there are times when he practices very little law. But his most crucial function, he says, is simply to be there for the person at whose pleasure he serves.
“For me, the most important part of this job is being able to work for this president based upon my relationship with him, and that is what makes this job so special for me–being able to help him in an extraordinarily difficult time,” said Gonzales. “It is a tremendously burdensome position. Everything that I say, everything that I do publicly, is monitored, is analyzed, is cataloged away for future reference.”
Put another way, the job can be “one damn thing after another,” as a White House counsel for Ronald Reagan once described it. But that’s not the kind of language or tone Gonzales would use; during a visit to his West Wing office, he shows why people who work with him call him “the judge,” a formal title from his stint as a Texas Supreme Court justice but also an affectionate description of a courtly manner: polite, soft-spoken, reflective. He describes himself as mild-mannered, as do those who know him. But that mildness should not be mistaken for weakness, nor should his lack of wordiness be taken as lack of conviction, says Viet Dinh ’93, who has worked closely with Gonzales as head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy.
“He is a very effective leader because he has a quiet resolve–he provides leadership and does it through consensus rather than steamrolling,” said Dinh. “Any fear that his consensus is not backed by leadership is misplaced because behind the congenial operating manner is a very clear vision and very good leadership style.”
That style has helped him negotiate the many shared responsibilities of the Justice Department and the counsel’s office, says Dinh, who crafted the USA Patriot Act and credits Gonzales as “critical to its passage.” Just as they did to everyone else in the administration, the attacks of 9/11 turned Gonzales’ focus to anti-terror measures and thrust him into the debate over a possible war with Iraq. Over the summer, the counsel reportedly advised the president that congressional approval was not required to take action against Iraq. But on the same day in October that the president would sign the joint congressional resolution authorizing him to use force against Iraq if necessary, Gonzales would rather talk about the drafting of the language in the counsel’s office and the series of meetings with staff and leadership in Congress that led to agreement. The point, said Gonzales, is that the president decided to go to Congress to get authorization. And he got it done.
Gonzales will always credit the president first, not least for leading him to the place he is today. Many people with much more privileged backgrounds don’t get the same opportunities, but he has, he says, because one person believed in him.
“I owe all that, really, to the president,” said Gonzales. “Sometimes life works out that way; there is really no good explanation. All you can do is prepare yourself, get a good education, get good training, and the next time the next George W. Bush comes along, you’re there and you’re ready, and that person could turn the tables for you.”
Gonzales began the training for his career after serving in the U.S. Air Force, attending the Air Force Academy and getting his bachelor’s degree from Rice. He had never seen Harvard Law School before arriving as a student in the summer of 1979. That first day, he remembers riding a 10-speed bike and parking in front of Langdell Hall, and feeling joy and pride and even awe at being a part of such a place. But soon enough came another feeling, one not as often associated with students at HLS. He felt comfortable. It helped that he was older than many other students, and it helped to realize that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if he didn’t make straight A’s (which was a good thing because he didn’t). He hung around with a group of students who shared his feeling of calm and feeling of good fortune, people who knew they would get great jobs, were there to learn but also to enjoy themselves. They knew the world, eventually, would come to them.
It did to Gonzales in the form of an offer from Vinson & Elkins in Houston. He worked there on corporate transactions, aiming for partnership. He even declined a job offer from George H.W. Bush to serve in his administration in Washington. It was a low-level position, and Gonzales saw better opportunities ahead if he stayed and made partner.
He proved himself on a public offering that took half a year and involved local counsels in more than a dozen states, according to Robert Baird ’69, a partner at Vinson & Elkins. Gonzales was a “get-the-job-done kind of guy,” said Baird, working hard and showing sound judgment. Just as important, however, was the way he did it.
“Being the kind of gentleman that Al is,” he said, “is probably the most effective way to approach the situation, because most corporate transaction projects are projects where different constituencies with different interests are working together toward a common end, and there is a lot of persuasion involved. So if you get everybody on your team and you get everyone working in parallel, the transaction goes so much more smoothly. I think Al, with his personality, is superb at that. And I would guess that quality is extremely important in the kind of arena that he is playing in now.”
Gonzales eventually did make partner and made a good living at it. So some people questioned whether it really was a better opportunity when Texas Gov. George W. Bush, then a political newcomer, asked him to serve as his general counsel at the recommendation of local attorneys. But he wanted to do something different, wanted to go into public service and, though he didn’t know Bush well then, saw his chance to do something important. After three years in the counsel job, he went on to serve as Texas secretary of state and a justice on the Supreme Court of Texas. Over the years, Gonzales says, he and Bush have built a good relationship. The president, he says, is comfortable with his style of providing advice. One of the first things Bush did after he became president-elect was ask Gonzales, with his wife and three boys, to come with him to Washington. Gonzales didn’t really need to think about it. “I am not sure that there will ever be a job that I would say ‘no’ to, if he asked me to do it,” he said.
The words “first” and “Hispanic” cling to Gonzales in life and on the page. They are used in the typical summary of him: the first Hispanic White House counsel, the first Hispanic partner at his firm, a leading candidate to become the first Hispanic justice on the Supreme Court (though, depending on how one defines the term, Benjamin Cardozo, a Sephardic Jew of Portuguese descent who served on the high court from 1932 to 1938, may actually have been the first Hispanic justice). Throughout Gonzales’ career, he has belonged to Hispanic organizations, serving as president of the Houston Hispanic Bar Association and chairman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly of Harris County, Texas. In 1999, the Hispanic National Bar Association gave him the Latino Lawyer of the Year award.
His heritage is important to him and also important to a president who has emphasized including people of all backgrounds and ethnicities in his administration, Gonzales says. When the White House counsel wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post in September advocating for Miguel Estrada’s (’86) confirmation to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit (the confirmation was stalled in committee last year), he noted that Estrada “is an inspiration to Hispanics and to all Americans.” Many people do feel special pride in seeing someone who looks like them in positions of prominence, he says.
“It is true that, for some Americans, they couldn’t care less that I am Hispanic, doing this job. What they care about is that the job gets done right,” he said. “But I am always very mindful that for another segment of the population, there is a special pride that someone named Gonzales is advising the president of the United States on legal issues.”
But he also is quick to note that there is no Hispanic way to judge a case or to do a job, and that, while it pleases Bush when a well-qualified person may also happen to be Hispanic or another minority, merit will always be the priority for the president. Gonzales agrees, and that’s why he says he doesn’t concern himself with debates on whether he got this far because of his heritage. It’s what he has done with the opportunities that matters, he says.
Judging that, of course, may depend largely on what you think of what President Bush has done in office. Gonzales doesn’t like to talk about the advice he’s given to the president, but he has helped guide Bush through legal questions surrounding the war on terrorism, such as military tribunals and detaining suspects without counsel. Tribunals, Gonzales said, “would provide basic rights to terrorists, but they would be structured in a way which would ensure the continued protection of the national security of this country.” And in every war this country has fought, he says, people have been detained without access to a lawyer, even if they are American citizens. “I think legally we are right, and that will be confirmed in the courts,” said Gonzales. “[But] maybe we need to do a better job of educating the American public about what we are doing here and the need for that course of action.”
Though his office tries to find ways to allow the president to do what he believes needs to be done to protect the country, there are times, Gonzales says, when he has to tell the president what he doesn’t want to hear. An effective White House counsel is one who can say “no” to his boss. That has happened occasionally, particularly on questions of executive privilege. People have criticized the secrecy of this White House, but that charge is leveled against most administrations, he says. The White House has released most documents that Congress has requested, Gonzales says, and has reached agreement on releasing some disputed records, such as those detailing the administration’s contacts with Enron. In addition, the president may want to turn over communications that, in the opinion of his counsel, should be privileged, and his counsel doesn’t hesitate to advise him that he shouldn’t. “My job is to protect the institution of the presidency, and so, in that case, my job is to make the president understand that ‘by doing this, Mr. President, you’ll weaken the institution of the presidency,'” said Gonzales. “This president has great respect for that institution, so when someone tells him that it weakens it, he considers that very, very seriously.”
Gonzales also advises the president on the judiciary, an institution of government that he fears has been weakened by the Senate’s failure to fill a number of vacancies. Indeed, by the end of November the Senate had confirmed only about half of Bush’s circuit court nominees, while it confirmed a much higher percentage for recent presidents in their first two years in office. The dearth of confirmations and the long delays in hearings for many nominees are frustrating, he acknowledges. Particularly unfortunate, he says, was the failed 5th Circuit nomination last year of Priscilla Owen, with whom he served on the Supreme Court of Texas. (In January, she was renominated to the appeals court.) Her critics cited Gonzales’ own words in an abortion case, in which he characterized Owen’s interpretation of a statute as an “unconscionable act of judicial activism,” as evidence of her unfitness for the court of appeals. But disagreement, he notes, should not mean disqualification, a point he made in a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Earlier last year, he cited the judicial issue as one key reason that the Republicans needed to take back the Senate in the fall elections. Before the Republican victory, in fact, came to pass, Bush and his counsel unveiled a proposal that would streamline the judicial confirmation process. The initiative calls for the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold a hearing within 90 days of receiving a nomination and for the full Senate to vote on each nominee within 180 days after the nomination is submitted. “All Americans would see a more dignified process and have their federal courts fully staffed to protect their rights and their liberties,” Bush said. “And the vacancy crisis would be resolved once and for all.”
At its core, the wrangling over judicial nominees exemplifies a fundamental disagreement on what makes a person qualified for the job, according to Gonzales. “That person should come to the bench with no personal agenda to follow,” he said. “Certain Democrats on the Judiciary Committee believe that judges do come with a personal agenda. . . . [They] ask, ‘What are your personal beliefs about an issue?’ because they believe that that is going to impact your decision making as a judge. I think that that is wholly inappropriate; I think it is wrong for a judge to pursue a personal agenda, and their own personal beliefs, in my judgment, are wholly irrelevant to how they should do their job as a judge.”
He believed the same when he was a judge. And he has been criticized for it by people in his own party, as in the abortion case in which he differed from Owen. In that opinion, he ruled with the majority to overturn a lower court ruling, thereby allowing a minor to have an abortion without parental consent. In doing so, he was following the law, not his own values, he wrote: “While the ramifications of such a law and the results of the Court’s decision may be personally troubling to me as a parent, it is my obligation as a judge to impartially apply the laws of this state without imposing my moral view on the decisions of the Legislature.”
That deference to legislative intent pervaded Gonzales’ time on the bench, according to Supreme Court of Texas Chief Justice Thomas Phillips ‘ 74. For example, Gonzales’ opinion in another case, Fitzgerald v. Advanced Spine Fixation Systems, reads as a “paean to strict statutory construction,” he said.
Gonzales’ decisions “show an equal disdain for activism, regardless of what side of the political spectrum it comes from,” Phillips said. “I never saw anything inconsistent on that, and I never had any sense that he was casting any votes based on whether somebody–a former employee, a contributor, a friend who was governor or anybody else–would approve or disapprove.”
On the court, Gonzales was soft-spoken, not confrontational, said Phillips: “He tried to prevail through reason rather than intimidation.” Perhaps it is a testimony to that style that the case Phillips cites to praise his former colleague is one in which he took the opposite side.
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Kenneth Starr’s book about the Rehnquist court, “First Among Equals,” lies on a shelf outside Gonzales’ office on the day of the interview. Whether Gonzales will be a member of that court is a topic of much speculation. But of course no one who has any say in the matter, least of all Gonzales himself, is talking about it. Viet Dinh, who helps recommend judges to the president, was asked what he would think of a candidate for the Supreme Court with Judge Gonzales’ credentials. He laughed and laughed at the question, and he didn’t stop laughing until he said goodbye.
Such talk is not a distraction to Gonzales at all, he says. There is nothing he can do about it, and he is a person who focuses on what he can do. But he does worry about something, on top of the worries inherent in his current role. He wonders what he will do next after his job in the White House is done, what will be as exciting and satisfying. After all, how many once-in-a-lifetime opportunities can one person have?