MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Just ahead, we get another chance to hear one of my favorite interviews of the year. I talked with the young cast of the holiday movie, "The Great Debaters." They tell us what they learned about their country and themselves.
But first, we continue our series on some of the most fascinating people of 2007. Now, we've already heard about the University of Hawaii football team Cinderella story, the Rutgers women's basketball coach, C. Vivian Stringer and presidential candidate Barack Obama from someone who knows him well - his baby sister.
Today, we're talking about another fascinating person from 2007: former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. President Bush appointed him in 2005, making him the 80th person to serve in that position and the first Latino. But that accomplishment was quickly overshadowed by controversies - among them, reports of a secret domestic eavesdropping program and a scandal involving the firing of U.S. attorneys - critics say - for political reasons. This past August, under fire for months from both Democrats and Republicans, he resigned.
Joining me to talk about the rise and fall of Alberto Gonzales is syndicated columnist and Barbershop regular Ruben Navarrette. Ruben joins us from member station KPBS in San Diego.
Mr. RUBEN NAVARRETTE (Syndicated Columnist): Michel, my pleasure.
MARTIN: Now you've been writing about Gonzales for years. You've had the privilege of meeting with him on several occasions. In fact, I think you're one of the very few people in the media with whom he spoke after he resigned. Sounds like you found him fascinating, too.
Mr. NAVARRETTE: I really did. You know, he's a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I think for President Bush, he is a friend and confidant, somebody who the president considered as close as a brother, and certainly, I think Gonzales considered President Bush to be close as a brother.
To many Hispanics, he was someone to be proud of for the historical accomplishment of breaking this barrier and becoming the first Latino attorney general. But also to many Hispanics, he was a disappointment in office, someone who they always sort of viewed suspiciously as if he was somehow closer to the Republican Party and to the president than he was to their interests.
And so he was many things to many people.
MARTIN: Can you give us a little snapshot of how he got where he got? I mean, he was one of eight children. He grew up on a small town outside of Houston.
Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right. A town literally called Humble, Texas, and that sort of summarizes the Gonzales family. This is a guy who went to Rice University as an undergraduate. He was at the Air Force Academy, I believe, for a short time as well. Then he went to Harvard Law School and had various job opportunities, decided to come back. He practiced law in Houston, and there he got the attention of this guy who owned a baseball team whose dad happened to be a former president. And he had designs on running for governor. And George W. Bush became friends, best friends with Alberto Gonzales. And from there, he began Gonzales' ascension through the ranks. He eventually, thanks to the association with Bush, was appointed to the Texas Supreme Court, was sort of the governor's lawyer in Texas, a private lawyer, then went to Washington with Bush, became the White House counsel, and then the attorney general.
In one word, the reason I think that Gonzales ascended so fast, was loyalty. He was loyal to the president. But obviously, you don't get from where you started to where he ended up without a lot of smarts, a lot of hard work. And not all that many folks that grow up in Humble, Texas, go to Harvard and end up being the A.G.
MARTIN: I want to play a clip of Mr. Gonzales speaking on the day that he resigned.
Mr. ALBERTO GONZALES (Former U.S. Attorney General): I also remind our fellow citizens that we live in the greatest country in the world, and that I have lived the American dream. Even my worst days as attorney general have been better than my father's best days.
MARTIN: Why did he say that? I mean, did his father just have a very difficult life? Was that something that he carried with him?
Mr. NAVARRETTE: I think that's a very good point. I think a lot of Gonzales critics were angry that he said that. It seemed to a lot of Gonzales' critics as if he was trying to play the, you know, humble card or the ethnic card or the race card or whatever, to say - that sort of imply that as the first Mexican American Latino attorney general, he was aware that his father, having a much different experience, but this was all sort of, you know, connected somehow.
I took it differently. I thought it made sense that he would say that. He was trying to remind himself that - and we also, I think, find ourselves in these situations where we think that what's incredibly important to us is not so important in hindsight looking back on everything that our previous generations worked for to accomplished. And I think that's what - those are all things he was trying to communicate. I think it was with a sense of gratitude that the country had given him this opportunity.
MARTIN: And it was a kind of a this too shall pass argument, you know, that, yeah, this is a big deal right now, but, you know what? This is not picking, you know, tomatoes in the hot sun.
Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah, I think African-Americans do this a lot, to their credit. They have a long historical view, and they say, you know, no matter what's going on at the moment, I'm standing on somebody's shoulders, and they stood on somebody's shoulders. And it took a long time to get to this spot. So, you know, no matter what you all think you're doing to me, understand that there's some stuff you're never going to be able to take from me.
MARTIN: Speaking of I'm standing on somebody's shoulders, you mentioned that he was somewhat of a polarizing figure among Latinos who follow such things, that some considered him, obviously, very proud of his accomplishment. But other people feel he didn't do enough to advance goals like immigration reform, or they felt that his politics were just not in the best interests of the Latino community. Did that bother him?
Mr. NAVARRETTE: I think it did, to some degree. But, you know, I think one of the criticisms they had about him was that his civil rights division was horrible in terms of voting rights cases and lots of other things that could have been done to advance the cause of Latinos, African-Americans and others. And so I think that that was a really legitimate criticism in that regard. But he, I think, did care what people thought about him, and particularly Hispanics' thought about him.
There was a reason that he sought me out that we began this sort of relationship. He realized that there were, you know, a handful of Hispanic columnists out there who were actually syndicated. And there's Alberto Gonzales. He never denounced his association with the National Council of La Raza. He held them with the same esteem as some African-Americans who might hold the NAACP. And so he, I think, really felt connected to that community.
The community, on the other hand, is made of mostly Democrats. You know, a recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center said something like 50 percent of Latinos identify with Democrats. So for those Democrats, it was very difficult, I think, to acknowledge that this important barrier had been broken by a Republican. So I think that the reason many Latinos had a problem with Gonzales was because he worked for the wrong guy.
MARTIN: Well, you've been called out for being a Gonzales sympathizer. Some people say - I know…
Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right.
MARTIN: …because I read their responses to your column. I read it on the blogs that, you know, people get mad at you, too, because they think you defend…
Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah.
MARTIN: …him too quickly. And I wonder…
Mr. NAVARRETTE: Certainly.
MARTIN: …you know, why? Do you defend him because you think he's being held to double standard or just because you feel he's making his decisions with integrity, whether people like them or not?
Mr. NAVARRETTE: I think more the former than the latter. I'm not going to vouch for his honesty or integrity. I think a lot of what he did was deceitful. Nobody believes when you sit before Congress and you say I don't recall 52 times, you know, that that's really legitimate. But this was a witch hunt.
MARTIN: But it's not being - I mean, is not about being Latino.
Mr. NAVARRETTE: Well, it's complicated, Michel. It's not like the reason he got in trouble was because he's Latino. I am not prepared to say that the reason all those white journalists out there went after him was because he was Latino. I don't believe that.
I believe that one of the reasons that Democrats in the Senate went after Gonzales so aggressively was because he was a Latino. Because the Democrats want to continue to have a monopoly on the Hispanic vote just like they do on the black vote. And if tomorrow we waved our wand and we found out that there were a 100,000 or 200,000 African-Americans in prominent positions put there by Republicans, it would send the message to young African-Americans that this party is welcoming to you.
Now with regards to Latinos, Gonzales as a symbol was very powerful. So was Miguel Estrada before him, appointed - nominated for a judgeship, turned down by Senate Democrats, another Hispanic. If you're a Hispanic Republican and you're successful and you come up and you want to take one of these big high-profile jobs, you going to have a target on your chest, because Democrats cannot let you succeed.
MARTIN: Does he think that?
Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yes, I think he thinks that. And I think in interviewing him, I tried to get him to take that bait. You know, this is Ruben's theory, and what do you think of it? And he wouldn't go there necessarily, but I think he did say that Washington was a highly partisan place.
The reason I think Gonzales thought he had a target on his chest was because of his relationship with Bush. He always thought the criticism of him was really directed at Bush, and that people were trying to cripple Bush and hurt and wound Bush by going after his buddy Gonzales. And there may be some truth to that. I think Gonzales, though, has a lot to answer for. And he has to own up to what he did wrong. One of these days he he'll tell his own story in a book or something else, and that's the time to fess up to what you did wrong.
MARTIN: Okay, Ruben, one more question for you. Mr. Gonzales aside, who do you think is the most fascinating person of 2007 or one of the most fascinating people of 2007?
Mr. NAVARRETTE: There are lots of folks out there. You know, for different reasons, Michael Vick comes to mind as someone who had a lot of play this year. Paris Hilton, Britney Spears in the world of entertainment, a lot of folks for lots of different reasons. From the political world, Barack Obama, you know, I think Barack Obama is a very important figure and it looks like someone like Mike Huckabee is becoming very noteworthy as well. So, this has been a year for some very interesting folks.
MARTIN: That's an eclectic list, Ruben.
Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah, that's everybody.
MARTIN: You're reading People magazine at the dentist's office again?
Mr. NAVARRETTE: That's right. If they end up on the cover of People or even let alone Time magazine, it's happening for them.
MARTIN: Well, Happy Holidays to you.
Mr. NAVARRETTE: Thank you. You too.
MARTIN: Ruben Navarrette writes for the San Diego Union Tribune and cnn.com. He joined us from KPBS in San Diego.
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MARTIN: We wanted to take a minute to hear what some of the folks visiting our National Mall thought was fascinating. Here's what they had to say.
Ms. KIVANAH ABRAHAM(ph): My name is Kivanah Abraham, and in 2007, I found Oprah Winfrey fascinating because she has done so much for other people - not only in the United States, but over in other countries and I thought (unintelligible) deserved it.
Mr. JOEL HARVEY(ph): Hi, my name is Joel Harvey and in 2007 I find Mitt Romney to be fascinating.
Ms. REBECCA BALOUE(ph): Hi, my name is Rebecca Baloue and in 2007 I found Benazir Bhutto to be the most fascinating person, because of the way she could impact Pakistan and the rest of that area of the world.
Ms. AIZAH ABRAHAM(ph): Hello, my name Aizah Abraham. In 2007, I found Beyonce Knowles fascinating.
Unidentified Woman #1: Hello, I'm (unintelligible). In 2007, I think Yao Ming is very fascinating because he's really, really tall.
MARTIN: Those were voices from the National Mall here in Washington, DC telling us who they thought were the big names of the past year. And now it's your turn, we'd like to hear from you about the names that grabbed your attention this past year and why. What was it about their contribution that really made a difference? Write us at our blog at npr.org/tellmemore or leave us a message on our listener comment line at 202-842-3522. That's 202-842-3522.