Alberto-Gonzales-Photo
Alberto Gonzales was not someone I had thought about in years until I noticed that he and Loretta Lynch were the co-keynote speakers at a recent Legalweek conference on technology sponsored by my company ALM.

At the time, I had several thoughts. First, what strange bedfellows: President George W. Bush’s attorney general sitting down with his counterpart from the Obama administration. Second, what did these baby boomers with scant experience in tech (except maybe in surveillance) have to offer about the latest gizmo?

But more than anything else, I was intrigued that Gonzales, who resigned amid controversy, including accusations of perjury before Congress, was now a headliner at a legal event. His biography for the conference cited his historical role as the first Hispanic White House counsel and U.S. attorney general, but it didn’t go into his contentious past. Yet, who can forget stories of his role in promoting “enhanced interrogation” or that hospital scene of his visit to Attorney General John Ashcroft in which he tried to get Ashcroft, while in intensive care, to sign a warrantless wiretapping order?

Now dean of Nashville’s Belmont University College of Law, Gonzales, a former partner at Vinson & Elkins, was at one time mentioned as a possible contender for the U.S. Supreme Court. So I was curious about what he has to say about the trajectory of his career. Below is an edited version of our conversation and email exchanges.

Suddenly, you seem to be all over the news. You gave that keynote with Loretta Lynch at Legalweek, and you’ve been giving interviews to NPR, CNN and The Washington Post. Is this a comeback into public life? I’ve been doing speeches and interviews since I left office. It’s an opportunity to encourage people to go into public service and promote my law school.

OK, maybe you were hiding in plain sight and I didn’t notice. But you and other members of the George W. Bush team now seem to be on the radar because of the current administration. Before President Donald Trump, a lot of people thought George W. Bush was the worst president in modern history. And now it looks like it pales in comparison?

Exactly! Since Trump took office, George W. Bush’s stock has been rising. Do you expect the same redemption for yourself? If you ask President Bush, he’d say it’s unfair to judge decisions in the immediate aftermath. You need the passage of time to put things in context. People don’t realize how difficult decisions are made, and the public don’t have all the information. I don’t know if “redeemed” is the right word.

You were highly controversial. First, in your role as White House Counsel when you advocated for enhanced interrogation. You argued that the War on Terror required a “new paradigm” that “renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners.” People need to remember that many of those decisions came from the DOJ. John Ashcroft made the decision [about enhanced interrogation] and sent a memo about it to the White House, and my draft was on top of it. Enhanced interrogation began with John Ashcroft—not that I’m blaming him.

Then, you fired a bunch of attorney generals that critics say was politically motivated. That prompted an investigation by the Justice Department’s inspector general. We fired in one bunch seven attorney generals, and the inspector general found there were legitimate reasons with five of them. The conclusion was that the firings might have been for political reasons but there was nothing improper.

People also remember you for going over to the hospital with White House chief of staff Andrew Card to get Ashcroft to reauthorize a warrantless wiretapping while Ashcroft was in intensive care. John Ashcroft had approved it two and half years before. The president asked me and Card to go to hospital to reauthorize the order. I went at the direction of the president, and when we got there, Ashcroft said he was no longer the AG at the time so we didn’t have opportunity to ask him. People will spin it around as taking advantage of a sick man. I was cleared of everything, but nobody reports on that, of course.

Speaking of being treated fairly or not, Bush said that you got a raw deal when you resigned. Do you wish you stayed as a partner at Vinson & Elkins and never set foot in Washington? If you work in government, you have to accept the criticisms. I would still do it in a second, but my wife wouldn’t let me. It was hard on her and my sons. No question the criticisms hurt me. It was tough financially for me and my family. There were ongoing investigations, and they made it hard for me to get work. I probably won’t be able to get a job at another law school because most are very liberal, and I don’t think they’d hire me.

I heard you were unhireable. But it’s interesting that others implicated in the torture memos seemed to have fared better. [Ashcroft runs a lobbying firm, and the key architects of the torture memo Jay Bybee and John Yoo are a federal judge and professor of law at U.C. Berkeley, respectively.] Why did you have such a hard time? I was the designated bogeyman. But I won’t wallow about poor Alberto Gonzales. I don’t regret going into government. President Bush was son of a president, and I was son of construction worker, and he liked that. It was the American Dream.

Do you think being Hispanic made you an easier target? I like to think not, though some of my friends and colleagues thought so. I think what happened with respect to the controversies being mainly blamed on me was simply the natural reaction by others to keep quiet and protect their own reputation. Being a high-profile target is a double-edge sword. It made me an inviting target but it probably meant that supporters felt that I could adequately protect myself.

Did you set Hispanics back by your notoriety? I like to think not. People should judge Hispanics on their own records.

You know it’s often said that minorities still have to work harder to get to the same place as a white person. Do you think that’s true? I do not feel qualified to say that every minority still has to try harder. I know that we often start out in life in a different place, with fewer role models and opportunities. That was true for me. I worked hard to be successful. Look at what I have accomplished. Anything is possible in American no matter your skin color. No minority should expect to be given anything because of their skin color. Likewise, we should not be penalized for it either. Just give me a chance to succeed. That is the prayer for most minorities, that is my prayer still today.

 

\vchen@alm.com

Twitter: @lawcareerist.