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Breaking Down His Horns: Alberto Gonzales in a New Light

The former U.S Attorney General to President George W. Bush visited The National Constitution Center on September 8th to shed more than a few tidbits about his…

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Hidden in the jungle

May 26th, 2022

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Not even a mere five minutes had passed Thursday evening between the introduction of host Chris Stigall of CBS Philly and The National Constitution Center’s first guest and speaker of the Fall Town Hall Season, when the following question was boldly interjected to set the tone for the night:

“What does it feel like to know that most Americans think you have horns growing out of your head?”

The figurative “Satan” in-question is amiable, exuberant, and slightly short-statured Alberto Gonzales, who dominated the auditorium’s stage almost instantly with his pleasant southwestern drawl, his humorous quips, and his stereotypically-Latino exaggerated hand gestures. Former lawyer, former Texas Supreme Court Justice, and former U.S. Attorney General to the former President George W. Bush, Gonzales (who goes by “Al”), had been tearing-down myths about his background and his work since birth, and with the publication of True Faith & Allegiance, a memoir about service and sacrifice during the aftermath of September 11th’s terror attacks, Gonzales is far from done with debunking. 

Born to two fiercely “proud but poor” Mexican parents in San Antonio, Gonzales’ coming of age story as a first-generation immigrant and as a Latin American is one full of setbacks and eventual success. His humble beginnings include a father who was only educated at a second grade level, a mother who was only educated at a sixth grade level, and eight siblings living together in a meager low socioeconomic housing situation. He began working in middle school selling sodas at Rice University football games, and was finally able to afford a landline phone by the time he was in the eleventh grade. Although his family did not put much focus on education, they did instill within him the values of gratitude and faith, which led him to put his love of his country into military service in the U.S. Air Force. 

Through determination and a tinge of luck, Gonzales was encouraged to continue his studies and return to his roots- in fact, at the very same place he had served chilled Cokes as a kid: Rice University. Later on, he went to Harvard Law School, and the rest- as they say -is history. 

George W. Bush “loved” Gonzales’ story, and had been keeping tabs on his legal and political prominence in Texas since Gonzales had applied to work for Bush’s father in The White House in 1988. Gonzales claims he was “shocked,” and kept on asking “but, why me?” when Bush offered him the opportunity to provide him legal counsel when he became Governor of Texas in 1995. “He gave me wonderful opportunities,” Gonzales reminisced, saying that it was “hard not to like him” since he was “very fun” and has his “mother’s personality.”

Here is when Chris Stigall began to probe once more into the controversial decision-making of The Bush Administration, framing Gonzales’ head with those “horns” again. However, what emerged from the conversation was insight about the wrongs and rights of then, and the wrongs and rights of now. Never seeking to convince, Gonzales provides an insider’s moderate perspective on the complex world of politics, both in war and in peace: 

1. On Guantanamo

“Guantanamo was chosen from a slew of bad choices, and was chosen shortly after the 9/11 attacks. There was never a viable option or alternative to Guantanamo, and there remains to be none. We had to choose a place that would take-in these high profile and maximally dangerous criminals. We were pressed for time. Even though these criminals don’t have an intelligence value now, they are still highly dangerous. Bush and Obama have been stuck regarding the Guantanamo issue. And you can’t just try high-level detainees in our country’s criminal courts, because you need to think about the safety concerns of the American people.”

2. On San Bernardino and Surveillance

“Part of the struggle is that we sometimes need to collect info from Telecom carriers, and we need their collaboration. I was swayed otherwise [about Apple’s decision] when my good friend Michael Hayden [Director of the N.S.A. and the C.I.A.], thought Apple was right. The value of intelligence is high, but I don’t think that corporate should be turning over information, unless it is absolutely necessary. The government doesn’t need all this authority, and they shouldn’t have our information unless it is effective, necessary, and lawful.”

3. On Loretta Lynch and Bill Clinton’s Meeting

“That was unfortunate. Look, if I had seen President Clinton walking by me in a tarmac in Arizona, I would not have shaken hands with him. I would have told him it was inappropriate if he tried to speak with me. It’s about the appearance! [Lynch] needed to appear impartial, especially during a high-profile investigation. It’s unfortunate that it looked suspicious, even if they were just talking about their grandkids and shaking hands.”

4. On Hillary Clinton’s Private E-Mail Server

“The word intent is curious to Americans… Maybe she didn’t intend to do anything, but when you’re in the government and you’re talking about government business, it has to be preserved! It belongs to the government. It is a government record, not your personal property. You need to turn it in. I worry about the Department of Justice as an institution, and what James Comey [Director of the F.B.I] has to say about the case, but I don’t know what I don’t know. Has a crime been committed? They don’t seem to think they can gather all the elements to prove a crime.”

5. On Being a Hispanic Republican

“I never was into politics until later on, when I was a young lawyer in Houston. [The Republican Party] believed in God, country, self-reliance, accountability. Not like the Democrats don’t, but, I just felt comfortable and welcome in the party. It could have also been the timing in my life. It has been difficult to be a Republican and a Hispanic in this cycle, there is a lack of consistency, and how Hispanics are being viewed [negatively]...”

6. On Immigration

“Look, 11 million people are here unlawfully. [The system] is broken. We are a nation of immigrants, we are a nation of compassion. But we need to accommodate, and you can’t just build a wall, because it’s more than border security. Most immigrants are here on unlawful visas! But you can’t just jail children. We need to present sympathy.”

7. On Philadelphia’s “Sanctuary City” Status

“If it’s local, I have no problem with it. If it takes federal tax dollars, then I have a problem, because if you’re taking federal tax dollars and the I.C.E (U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement) calls on you to detain or deport someone, then you should comply. If it’s local, then it’s fine. That’s on you.”

8. On Marijuana and the Gonzales v. Raich Decision

“Again, if it’s locally controlled, I’m okay with it. If States are comfortable, then it’s okay. And if it’s medicinal, then I am sympathetic [towards the legalization of marijuana].”

9. On the Myths and Misunderstandings of The Bush Administration

“I don’t want to shy away from the issues, and you can see that [in the book]. I don’t want to convince. If you’re critical, I don’t want to make you believe, but we tried to make it right. Maybe we didn’t, but we did the very best we could, wrestling with difficult issues and time pressures. Bush didn’t lie about Iraq. I was in the Situation Room, and it was easy to believe that there were weapons of mass-destruction, the notion that there weren’t is troubling. Candidates are now saying that it was a mistake in front of Veterans, and that’s just wrong. We didn’t want to allow another major attack, and we saw the connection between Hussein & Al Qaeda. And, I’m sure if Bill Clinton was given the chance to kill Osama bin Laden again, he would. We didn’t do anything unlawful [in times of war]. Everything changed after The Pentagon and The Towers were hit.

10. On Donald Trump

“Oh, I don’t have to worry, he’d never call me!” Gonzales chuckles, musing on the thought of Trump calling on him to serve as one of his attorneys or legal counselors. “Most of the Bush family did not participate in Cleveland. These are two flawed candidates, and I think I’m right to say that Americans are unhappy. When I’m voting, I don’t think so much about parties. I think ‘What’s best for me and my family?,’ and I think that’s how everyone should vote. I’m not just going to support Trump because he’s a Republican, I’m going to educate myself more. But I’m not gonna tell you if I’m supporting him, or if I’m voting for him!” Gonzales laughs again, flailing his arms in dramatic exasperation, “Isn’t that what being an American is all about? I don’t need to tell you anything about what I choose!”

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