Bush's Legal Eagle, Rising With the Son
Alberto Gonzales has long fit in family plans
Alberto Gonzales really owes his political career to two men. Both are named George Bush. The elder Bush first invited Gonzales, the younger Bush's new White House counsel, into the fold around 1990. He was a budding lawyer in Houston back then, part of what Gonzales calls an effort to target "up-and-coming minority stars in America in the Bush administration." But the Harvard Law School grad spurned the offer, focusing instead on making partner in his law firm.
Fortunately for him, the man he turned down had a son who trusted his dad's eye for talent. So when George W. Bush was elected governor of Texas in 1994, he tapped Gonzales as his general counsel. Gonzales says that when he asked why he got the nod, Bush replied: "You first got on my radar screen back . . . when you turned down my old man for a job."
Gonzales's career has since experienced a vertiginous rise. He spent two years as Bush's general counsel in Austin, then did a brief tour as secretary of state before Bush appointed him to the Texas Supreme Court. Though Gonzales had no trial or judicial experience, he had Bush's confidence--so much so that when he came to Washington, Bush again looked to Gonzales to fill the sensitive post of White House counsel. "He's going extraordinary places," says Texas appellate lawyer Doug Alexander, "awfully fast."
Total trust. There are those who speculate that Bush might look to the 45-year-old Gonzales when--not if--there's an opening on the Supreme Court. Gonzales was a logical choice for Bush to pick as his legal counsel, says C. Boyden Gray, who served as White House counsel to Bush's father. "It's a job that requires total and complete trust. You can get experience from other sources."
If Bush is familiar with Gonzales's views on controversial issues, it's not from the lawyer's brief stint on the Texas high court, where he "kept his personal views well hidden," says Alexander. In an interview with U.S. News, Gonzales gave a hint of some of his leanings on a few of the nation's thornier issues. Many appear to dovetail neatly with Bush's. The role of judges, Gonzales says, should be limited. "I get concerned when judges are asked to do too much," he says. While race can play a role in a hiring decision, Gonzales says, it should never supplant competence: "I should not be hurt because of my race. Likewise, I don't think I should be helped solely because of my race."
On other issues, Gonzales is both easier and harder to read. As Bush's top lawyer in Austin, he delivered the order to carry out 59 death sentences, so his stand on capital punishment is apparent. On abortion, he suggests a bit of a gulf between his personal views and the law upholding abortion rights: "All I'll say about it is, how I feel about it personally may differ with how I feel about it legally. . . . It's the law of the land."
While that might seem to be taken from the conservative hymnal, some conservatives in Texas and Washington say that they would probably oppose his nomination to the nation's high court. They are unhappy with his vote in a Texas high-court decision last year that weakened a law requiring parental notification before minors can get abortions. "Some conservatives may actively oppose a Gonzales nomination," says one court watcher. "Others may just watch the liberals savage him."
About his Supreme Court prospects, Gonzales demurs. "I don't plan on being a candidate. . . . I am focusing on my job." That job, typically powerful but behind the scenes, took on an unusually high profile during the Clinton era. Now it is Gonzales who is charged with enforcing myriad ethics rules and vetting top administration appointments. He doesn't anticipate being quite so busy in the scandal department as his predecessors. "My client has a very good moral compass," Gonzales says.
He finds his own source of inspiration in his father, who worked two jobs to help feed his wife and eight children. The senior Gonzales, who died in a work-related accident in 1982, believed in a merit-based work ethic and was wary of welfare. "He never asked for help or a handout except from his brothers and sisters," Gonzales says.
One area in which conservatives and liberals will be watching Gonzales closely is judicial appointments. Prospective judges will not be asked litmus test questions, Gonzales says. But liberal court-watchers are wary, because Gonzales's new legal team includes members of the conservative Federalist Society and attorneys who worked for former Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr. "If we get into a fight, I need someone who can go into battle with me, and protect this president and protect this White House," Gonzales says. "That's my job."
This story appears in the March 12, 2001 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.