Alberto Gonzales – grandson of immigrants and son of migrant workers in Texas – climbed to one of the nation’s highest and most distinguished offices: U.S. Attorney General.
And the path to the position in President George W. Bush’s cabinet has taught him many lessons. Mainly, have a thick skin and ignore the critics.
“You have to be able to make a decision whether you’re going to be criticized or make a mistake, because you’re going to make mistakes in these jobs,” Gonzales said. “As long as you believe that you’re doing the right thing, you just have to continue doing the right thing.”
It’s the advice that Gonzales passes along to his students at Belmont University College of Law, where he has served as dean since 2014.
“I emphasize to my students the value of public service, but I remind them to go in with your eyes open and your armor on because it is hard. It shouldn’t be that hard, but it is very difficult, and that’s what I’ve learned,” he said, sitting in his office overlooking Belmont’s lush campus near downtown Nashville. The room is peppered with memorabilia from the Bush years – plus (surprisingly) a blaster in a case gifted to Gonzales by the Star Wars creator himself, George Lucas – hinting that the man behind the giant desk has seen Washington up-close.
PRESIDENT TRUMP'S BUDGET, POLICIES AND THE AMERICAN DREAM
Trump’s proposed budget was introduced the day before I met with Gonzales, and he had not yet had time to review the budget blueprint in detail. He said that he had, however, read the news articles in which many advocates for the poor argued that Trump’s biggest cuts would hurt those most in need.
“I think the primary responsibility of helping other people falls not on the government, it falls on churches, nonprofits. It falls upon neighbors helping neighbors, it falls upon families. And then I think the government is there as a safety net for those who otherwise cannot get help,” Gonzales said.
“Do I worry about the cuts? What I would ask is, ‘OK, are we cutting programs that are ineffective? Are we cutting programs where you’ve got multiple programs funding on the same kind of issue and problem?’ If that’s the focus of the cuts, then I’m not sure I have a problem with it. I’d have to study the cuts.”
Gonzales has found fault with Trump’s immigration policies, noting that he and the president have a “different opinion” on the president's promised border wall.
“I believe in border security. I think in a post-9/11 world you need to know who’s in this country and why they’re here,” he said.
“But as a father of three boys, I understand why people come into this country to seek a better life for their families. I might do the same if I had to provide for my family and that was the only way to do it, particularly if there was no fear of prosecution which we’ve had in the past. So it’s a tough issue.”
He hopes Trump’s immigration reform will include tougher penalties for employers who repeatedly hire undocumented immigrants, and he wants changes to the visa process.
“We have to revise our visa process because half the people here unlawfully [now] came here lawfully, and now they’re here under the shadows because of expired visas. We have to fix that and a wall is not going to stop that,” he said.
“With respect to people who are already here, some of them have to leave because they’re criminals, drug addicts, and they provide no services to our country. But there are a large number of immigrants who contribute to our economy and they’re law abiding otherwise. We need to put them in some type of temporary legal status, I think.
“The children who are brought here by their parents and they grow up here in this country and this is the only home they've ever known, they deserve to stay, particularly those who go to college and those who serve in our military. We need to figure out a way to provide a mechanism for these dreamers to stay here in America.”
Gonzales, whose grandparents immigrated from Mexico, has said he is the embodiment of the American dream, rising from poverty to leading the Justice Department.
He credits his path to success, in part, to good fortune in working with Bush before he ascended to the White House. Now, he feels an obligation to help others lift themselves up.
“Even the littlest thing can be influential in the life of someone else. I’ve been blessed and I have an obligation to help others,” he said.
Gonzales grew up in poverty in Texas. His family, including his seven siblings, lived in a two-bedroom home with no hot running water, and his parents had only elementary school educations. Gonzales graduated from public school, and after enlisting in the Air Force, he attended the Air Force Academy before transferring to Rice University. He earned his law degree from Harvard University, then launched his law career at a firm in Houston.
Soon, George H. W. Bush came calling.
“In 1988, I was considered for a couple of positions in (George W. Bush’s) father’s administration but I said no because I wanted to stay at my law firm and make partner,” Gonzales said. He became the first minority partner at his firm, and his name stayed with the Bush family.
“Second President Bush remembered that story and says, ‘That’s how you got on my radar screen,’” Gonzales chuckled.
When Bush won his bid for Texas governor in 1994, he brought Gonzales on as general counsel.
“I didn’t know him and I told my wife that I’d just do it for a few years then we’d go back to our comfortable life in Houston,” Gonzales recalled.
But he loved the job in politics – and he really enjoyed working with Bush.
Bush later tapped Gonzales to be Texas secretary of state, then appointed him to the Texas Supreme Court. “I advanced in state government, then (Bush) becomes president of the United States so I get to work in the White House, then become part of the president’s cabinet. Those are incredible opportunities because I got to know the guy who becomes the president of the United States,” he said. “Working with him and seeing how he treats people, the kind of father he is, the kind of husband he is — I really learned a lot from him just by watching." After a nomination from Bush, Gonzales was confirmed as the 80th U.S. Attorney General in 2005 – the first Hispanic to serve in the position.
Then the critics came.
He was accused of dismissing nine U.S. attorneys for political reasons. Next, lawmakers questioned Gonzales's truthfulness on a variety of subjects, including a warrantless surveillance program launched after the Sept. 11 attack.
He resigned in 2007.
But, he would do it all again.
“Yeah, I would do it because our country needs that,” he said. “If good people are not willing to step up and do what needs to be done, then we’ll cease being the greatest country on the face of the earth.”
Alberto Gonzales meets with Contributor editor Amelia Ferrell Knisely in his office at Belmont University College of Law.
TRUMP'S WHITE HOUSE
Naturally, I was curious to know what he thinks of President Trump’s response to his critics.
“He responds quickly and I do worry about that because if you’re affected by criticism, it’s going to affect your decision making,” Gonzales responded.
He added, “I think he’s never done this before, so I give him the benefit of the doubt. We need to give him a chance.
"He can be successful; I think it will be done in a way that’s different than what we’ve seen in the past.”
He noted that the current president’s style is much different than that of Bush, who is still a close friend. “Bush will always be my president,” he said, with a smile.
Gonzales threw his support behind Jeff Sessions when Trump nominated the Alabama Republican to the position of U.S. Attorney General.
“He obviously knows the department really well,” referring to Sessions’ former role as attorney general of Alabama. “I know there was some issue about what may have happened or what he may have said in the past, so I think we give him a chance. I think that’s certainly appropriate,” he said.
Gonzales said there is a “tremendous burden” on the GOP right now as the party controls the Legislature, but, in his opinion, Trump’s presidency has already been a success by one marker – his nomination of Neil Gorsuch to fill a vacancy on the nation’s highest court.
Gonzales was working on an op-ed for The Washington Post in support of Gorsuch during the time of this interview – a man he calls “one of the most decent men I’ve ever known.”
“He’s very respectful of the role of the court, very deferential to the elective rights of government, not to constitutionalize every issue that comes before the court,” Gonzales said of Gorsuch. “I think he’ll be respectful of the court’s prior decisions and won’t overrule the court’s precedents when he thinks the court has just gotten it wrong in the past.
“I think he’s going to be well-liked by the other members of the court. When you’re well-liked in a small group like that, you’re much more effective.”
As for other markers of a successful presidency, Gonzales said he’ll look to Trump to “keep us safe,” take action on health care reform and reduce the country’s deficit.
'ANOTHER CHAPTER LEFT IN ME'
Across the hall from his office at Belmont, Gonzales led me into a conference room that serves as a mini museum of sorts of his time in Washington. Blown-up photos vibrantly capture meetings with the president, the first lady and cabinet members. Medals, awards and baseball jerseys (from ceremonial first pitches) also fill the space, showcasing some of the best moments of his life.
Gonzales found his way to Nashville after his son came to the city for college, and the Music City was a perfect fit for the country music lover from Texas. (He once took Justice Samuel Alito to The Opry when he was in town.)
And where does Gonzales go after this?
“I don’t know, but I do feel like I have another chapter left in me. What that would look like, I don’t know,” he said.
I asked him if he’d run for office.
“I wouldn’t rule it out. But given what I’ve done, there are only a few positions that I would ever be interested in running for.”
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