Gonzales: A Bush Confidant, in the Hot Seat

As the controversy surrounding the firing of eight U.S. attorneys continues to grow, various members of Congress have called for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to resign.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm John Ydstie, doing double duty today while both Alex Chadwick and Madeleine Brand are away.

Coming up, I'll talk to a former attorney for the Justice Department who said she was pressured by officials in the attorney general's office to weaken her case against tobacco companies.

But first, if you are a betting man or woman, Washington D.C. has been a good place to be lately. On Monday, the smart bet would have been on Alberto Gonzales leaving the attorney general's office, but after President Bush's speech Tuesday afternoon, the smart money was on Gonzales staying put.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Yeah, he's got support with me. I support the attorney general. I told you in Mexico I got confidence in him and I still do.

YDSTIE: Today, it's even odds on Gonzales' future. One thing is clear though, President Bush's steadfast loyalty to his longtime colleague and friend. NPR's Wade Goodwyn has this report on the life and political career of Alberto Gonzales and his relationship with the man who ultimately holds his fate.

WADE GOODWYN: If America needs reminding of the true measure of her worth, she can turn her eyes upon the astonishing rags-to-riches story of Alberto Gonzales and be reassured. The son of South Texas migrant workers, he grew up with seven brothers and sisters in a house with no hot water, no telephone, and certainly no expectations that anybody in the family was going to go to college.

His mother had a sixth-grade education, which was four more years than his father. But by the age of 12, Alberto Gonzales was already determined to be different.

Mr. TOM PHILLIPS (Former Chief Justice, Texas Supreme Court): I know that he sold drinks during football games at the stadium at Rice University and that ignited a dream in him that maybe one day, he could go to a school like that, even though nobody in his family had ever even considered college before.

GOODWYN: Tom Phillips served as chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court for 16 years and worked with Gonzales after then Governor George Bush appointed Gonzales to the court to fill a vacancy.

After high school, Gonzales joined the Air Force, then the Air Force Academy. He made his boyhood dream come true by returning to Houston to attend Rice University and eventually pursue the career as a corporate lawyer.

By 1990, Gonzales was working hard at getting rich at Vinson & Elkins, the largest and most powerful firm in Texas. Phillips says that's when Bush's father heard of the young Hispanic star and invited him to Washington to work at the White House. Gonzales turned the president down. He wanted to make partner of V and E.

Mr. PHILLIPS: Well, I don't think that he started off with any ambition to become White House counsel or the attorney general of the United States. I think he felt very strongly that the country had been very good to him that in most places in the world, his background was if consigned him to a certain cast or a certain set of a very limited opportunities in mind.

GOODWYN: Alberto Gonzales is called the judge by those close to him because of his service as Texas Supreme Court justice. Although Gonzales stayed close to the conservative line, Phillips says that during this early part of his career, Gonzales displayed independence in his rulings that made many Bush evangelicals nervous.

Mr. PHILLIPS: Whereas most of us just would read a cite to a case and know what the case said, you know, he had to go back and read all the cases. I mean, it impressed me that his sense fairness to - he wanted to do the right thing. He couldn't, you know, (unintelligible) frustrated the right wing to some extent. When he is being talked about for a judgeship, they couldn't pigeonhole him.

GOODWYN: But while Gonzales showed some early judicial independence, his ability to intuit what his clients wanted and then to create a legal framework to support their position was a hallmark of his career. It was from Gonzales' office as counsel to the president that the reinterpretation of the Geneva Convention emerged.

A redefinition of torture, warrantless domestic eavesdropping and the legal framework to keep enemy combatants in legal limbo. The ability to please his clients was a defining characteristic of Alberto Gonzales from the beginning.

Mr. BILL MINUTAGLIO (Author, "The President's Counselor: The Rise to Power of Alberto Gonzales"): People used to call up Vinson & Elkins and ask for Alberto Gonzales because they knew that he was fiercely loyal and that he would work very, very hard to find the legal provisions out there to get them the victory that they wanted.

GOODWYN: Bill Minutaglio is a former reporter for the Houston Chronicle and Dallas Morning News who has just completed a biography of the attorney general. Minutaglio says that any Washington insiders who are predicting that Gonzales is finished might want to think twice.

Mr. MINUTAGLIO: I think what we're learning and have to keep, you know, being reminded of is that George Bush really does value loyalty. And he stuck with Harriet Miers pretty much through thick and thin as he kept pushing her name forward for the Supreme Court. He likes the people that came to Washington with him from Texas.

GOODWYN: In 1994, a newly minted Texas governor called Alberto Gonzales and said he wanted to meet the guy who turned his old man down. And with that phone call began a professional and personal relationship of two rising stars that was marked by its intense loyalty, a rarity in politics.

That devotion was etched in stone in 1996. By a fluke, Governor Bush was summoned to jury duty that year. The trial involved an exotic dancer who was arrested for driving while intoxicated. It was at a time when Bush was just beginning to be mentioned as a candidate for president.

But voir dire and the jury forms the governor would have had to a filled out would have revealed that Bush had been arrested twice for alcohol-related incidents - once for disorderly conduct and one's for driving under the influence. These were not widely known facts at the time.

While the governor walked into the courtroom entertaining the press corps with how happy he was to do his citizen's duty, his general counsel, Alberto Gonzales, slipped into the judge's chambers through a backdoor. Somehow, Gonzales convinced the judge to dismiss Bush from the jury pool.

The official, if perhaps somewhat difficult-to-believe explanation, was that the accused stripper might petition the governor for a pardon. Gonzales' biographer says that what Gonzales did that day meant a lot to George Bush and his family.

Mr. MINUTAGLIO: Bush's advisers fear that if this fact had emerged at this trial where Bush would serve as a juror, it would jeopardize his political chances to run for the presidency. I called that development when Alberto Gonzales went down with the crossroads, because he was entrusted with a very long held Bush family secret.

GOODWYN: This current infidelity is the soul of the attorney general's relationship with the president. While his sponsor was ascendant, Alberto Gonzales glowed luminously in his wake. But Washington politics is a ruthless business and being too beholden to one man, even the most powerful in the world, can be powerless.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

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