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.
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