Alberto Gonzales grew up in crippling poverty, and President Bush proudly points to how his loyal friend's ambition and achievements are an inspiration. But his career has not been without controversy.
One Saturday afternoon in May, Alberto Gonzales addressed the 2004 graduating class of Rice University and talked about growing up in an impoverished household on the north edge of Houston.
His parents, former migrant workers, had only eight years of schooling between them and barely spoke English. The family of 10 lived in a small two-bedroom house with no hot water and no telephone. There was no tradition of education in the family, only of working hard to scrape by.
Gonzales took his first job at 12 to help support the family, and as he carried trays of soft drinks in the upper deck of Rice Stadium on football Saturdays, he aspired to a better life. “I would stare over the stadium walls and watch the Rice students stroll back to the colleges, and I wondered what it would be like to be one of you, a Rice student,” Gonzales said.
He went on to be one of them and much more. “In many ways, Al embodies the American dream,” says President Bush, who often talks about the real-life Horatio Alger aspects of Gonzales’ life.
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Today, Gonzales is Bush’s nominee for attorney general, the nation’s top law-enforcement officer. He is the first Hispanic named to the post.
Child of migrants
The journey reflects a life of extraordinary achievement for this child of migrants. Gonzales is a Rice alumnus; a graduate of Harvard Law School; a former partner in Houston’s largest law firm, Vinson & Elkins; a top appointee in Bush’s gubernatorial administration in Texas; and, for the past four years, the White House counsel to Bush.
Ahead are confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, scheduled to begin early next month, and Gonzales, 49, is likely to face tough questions regarding his role as White House counsel, particularly his memos that, critics believe, sanctioned the torture of terrorism suspects in Iraq and encouraged the detention of others at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, outside the jurisdiction of U.S. courts.
The attorney general’s job would be Gonzales’ fifth top-level assignment from Bush in a decade. As newly elected governor, Bush asked Gonzales to be his general counsel in 1995, and he subsequently appointed him to be Texas secretary of state and to the bench on the Texas Supreme Court. In 2001, Gonzales followed Bush to Washington as White House counsel.
Like many of the president’s inner circle who went to Washington, Gonzales is known for his loyalty to Bush. As general counsel to the then-governor, Gonzales went so far as to get Bush out of jury duty on a drunken-driving case in Austin, Texas, to prevent him from being forced to answer under oath whether he had ever been convicted of driving while intoxicated.
“Gonzales said they had concluded it would be improper for the governor to sit in a case where he might be later asked to consider a pardon,” said David Wahlberg, the attorney for the defendant. “I remember thinking, ‘This is bogus.’ But it was one of those arguments that had just enough legal merit. … He made a professional kind of presentation; he’s obviously a bright guy. But the end result was that he snookered us.”
Bush’s 1976 drunken-driving conviction eventually became public the week before the 2000 presidential election, and Gonzales has since acknowledged in published reports that he knew about the record and found a way to keep Bush from being forced to disclose it in the courtroom.
For a young man from humble beginnings, Gonzales has come a long way. He lovingly talks about his mother’s homemade meals of beans and tortillas and how his father and uncles, unable to afford help, built the family house. But now, he told Rice’s Class of 2004 in his commencement speech, he gets to enjoy “steak dinners or rides on Air Force One or weekends at Camp David.”
Even his siblings — three of the eight never finished high school, and Gonzales is the only one who went to college — can hardly fathom his life today.
“It’s an amazing story. It’s almost unbelievable for us,” said Gonzales’ brother Antonio, a SWAT officer with the Houston Police Department.
Crossing the lines
Gonzales attended MacArthur Senior High School in the Aldine Independent School District not long after schools were desegregated in Houston in the mid-1960s, as the Hispanic population was just beginning to grow. MacArthur had only a small percentage of black and Hispanic students.
He was known as “Al” in school and was a member of the National Honor Society, the Christian Student Union, the International Club and the football and baseball teams. He was remembered by his high-school counselor as respectful and self-motivated, pleasant but not particularly outgoing. But at a time when ethnic and racial groups did not mix much, she said, Gonzales crossed those lines.
“We hadn’t really been integrated that long, and a lot of the kids stayed within their group. They were reluctant to socialize with other groups, but he didn’t have that problem,” said Marine Jones, the former counselor and the first African-American professional hired at MacArthur in the late 1960s. “He didn’t align himself with just Hispanics. He was just that kind of person.”
Gonzales was one of the few minority students who took college-preparatory classes at the time, even though “there was no money in sight of his parents being able to pay for college,” Jones said. “It just wasn’t to be.”
The road to law
Given Gonzales’ scholastic achievement and interests then and the abilities he has exhibited since, Jones said, “you would think … he would have been class president and president of the honor society. But minorities just didn’t have that many leadership roles then. They were just there … doing the best that they could.”
Like many poor black and Hispanic students at the time, Gonzales chose the military when he graduated from MacArthur in 1973, enlisting in the Air Force. In his commencement address to the Class of 2004 at Rice, Gonzales said that if he thought he could have attended college, he would not have enlisted.
He was assigned with 100 other airmen north of the Arctic Circle at Fort Yukon, Alaska, a radar station, and within two years, with the encouragement of his officers, Gonzales finally applied to a college: the U.S. Air Force Academy.
U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY
He entered in the fall of 1975, but he told the Rice graduates at the 2004 commencement that he tired of the engineering and science curriculum and became interested in politics and law. So he finally applied to Rice. “Ultimately I simply put it in God’s hands by applying for a transfer to the school I once dreamed about attending as a boy,” he told the graduates. “If accepted at Rice, I would leave and pursue a legal career. If denied, I would stay and fulfill my military obligations. This was my prayer.”
An acceptance letter to Rice, dated May 13, 1977, Gonzales said, was “my answer, ending the journey that began as a daydream during those Saturday-afternoon football games.” Gonzales entered Rice in the fall of 1977, just after turning 22 and exactly one decade after he sold soft drinks at Rice Stadium.
Gilbert Cuthbertson, a political science professor at Rice for 41 years, remembers Gonzales well. Cuthbertson had Gonzales in his American constitutional law class and still uses a legal brief that Gonzales wrote in the class as a model for students to follow. The brief was written about a hypothetical case.
“It is a model of scholarship, organization and argumentation,” Cuthbertson said. “It’s one of the most professional jobs that I can remember any of my students having submitted.”
Gonzales entered Harvard Law School in the fall of 1979, at a time when the political atmosphere on campus “was still modestly raucous,” said a former classmate. But Gonzales was a “solid, sensible, even-keeled person,” said Howell Jackson, now a law professor at Harvard.
“Not all the law students were stable and sensible,” he said. “It was the late ’70s; there were protests and comings and goings. … I don’t remember him being overtly political. He was judicious as a young law student when a lot of students weren’t. His current boss would have been proud of him.”
Recruited out of Harvard in 1982 by Vinson & Elkins, Gonzales went to work as a business-transaction lawyer with the firm’s business, real-estate and energy group.
“He had a stellar record at Harvard,” said V&E’s managing partner, Joseph C. Dilg, who was head of the group when Gonzales was hired.
Dilg said Gonzales worked on several major merger and acquisition and real-estate development transactions, including the Houston center project in which a 15-to-20-square-block area in the heart of downtown was redeveloped over several years into new high-rise office buildings and hotels.
Dilg described Gonzales as “extremely thoughtful and careful in his thought processes” and a lawyer who made “very careful and reasoned decisions.”
By several accounts, Gonzales became known to the Bush family while he was at V&E. Gonzales served as special legal counsel to the Houston Host Committee for the 1990 Summit of Industrialized Nations, held at Rice University when George H.W. Bush was president. Dilg said Bush subsequently offered Gonzales a job in the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But Gonzales turned it down.
“He had a great career in front of him at V&E,” Dilg said.
A year later, in 1991, Gonzales was admitted to the V&E partnership along with a Hispanic woman, the firm’s first two Latino law partners.
In the next few years, Gonzales also made another key connection to the Bush family when he was serving on the board of the Texas Bar Association. He met Harriet Miers, formerly George W. Bush’s personal lawyer and former president of the Texas Bar. (Miers is deputy chief of staff for Bush, who has named her White House counsel pending Gonzales’ confirmation as attorney general.)
Gonzales’ longtime friend Roland Garcia, who formerly worked at V&E and served on several boards with Gonzales, said Miers recommended Gonzales, active in Republican politics locally, to Bush when he was elected governor and was looking for a counsel. “He interviewed him, and they hit it off and they’ve been fast friends ever since,” said Garcia, a lawyer and longtime Democratic activist in Houston. “Al was a Republican before it was popular for the Republicans to recruit Hispanics.”
Bush offered Gonzales the job of general counsel to the governor, and Gonzales did not hesitate, Dilg said. Dilg said Gonzales already had a strong interest in community and public service, and that he saw joining the Bush administration in Austin “as a way to give back to the larger community.”
“It takes a special type of person to forgo the income level he could have here for public service,” Dilg said.
James Daniel Thompson, a V&E partner who has been friends with Gonzales for 18 years and still plays golf with him when he returns to Houston, said “he kind of surprised all of us when he … resigned his partnership at the law firm to commit himself to public service.”
“But I think Al had really sort of thought about it and deliberated over the decision … ,” Thompson said. “He’s got a very strong work ethic, and balance that with very good judgment and a pretty quiet demeanor. He’s a person that is destined for success.”