MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Today, a newsmaker interview: the former attorney general of the United States, Alberto Gonzales. He was one of George W. Bush's closest advisers, but he's been vilified for his tenure as White House counsel and later, attorney general, for what is believed to have been his role in some of the Bush administration's most controversial episodes. He's given few interviews since he resigned as attorney general in September 2007, but now he's speaking out. He's here with us in our Washington, D.C., studios for much of the hour, so we hope. Mr. Gonzales, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
Mr. ALBERTO GONZALES (Former Attorney General, Bush Administration): I'm happy to be here.
MARTIN: You were on the plane with President George W. Bush when he flew back home to Texas last Tuesday, after Barack Obama took the oath of office. What was that like?
Mr. GONZALES: It was bittersweet, as you might imagine. I think there was a great deal of joy - joyous celebration in terms of the end of a tenure and of an experience that we all shared, a little sadness that we would no longer be working together on very important issues that affected the citizens of this country.
But it was - for me, it was a really great experience to be with the president, to say goodbye to the president, to thank the president for his service, to thank him for the opportunities he's given me. So, I really very much enjoyed the experience.
MARTIN: What was it like watching Barack Obama take the oath? I assume you were probably at Andrews Air Force Base, given the timing, and probably watching there. What was that like?
Mr. GONZALES: Well, most of the Texans and the senior staff that were flying down to Texas, we were all huddled together in the visitor's lounge at Andrews as President Obama took the oath. We all applauded afterwards. You know, it's a proud moment for America, quite frankly, for a number of reasons, and also another example of the wonderful tradition of peaceful transfer of power that occurs in our country every four or eight years. So, a very, very proud moment, very historic moment, of course.
MARTIN: None of my business, but do you mind telling me who you voted for?
Mr. GONZALES: Who did I - I voted for John McCain.
MARTIN: Yeah? You're a good, loyal Republican, right?
Mr. GONZALES: I believe that John McCain, I believe in his policies and his vision for America, and that's why I supported him, that's why I think my people should vote for someone.
MARTIN: Can you just take me back to the beginning? It's my understanding that when President George H.W. Bush, Bush 41, first asked you to come to Washington, you said no.
Mr. GONZALES: That's right. When Bush 41 was president of the United States, they were looking for minorities to come in to the administration, and I was asked to be a special assistant at HUD, and a special assistant, I believe, at the VA, but I said no because I wanted to stay and hopefully, make partner at the law firm that I was at in Houston.
And when Governor Bush became governor in 1995, in my first conversation with him, I asked him, why me? Why did you ask me to come be your general counsel on your staff? We didn't know each other very well at all, and I was somewhat surprised at the offer. And he told me then that when I had said no to his dad, he said, you said no to my old man, and that's when I first got on his radar screen.
MARTIN: Did you want to come to Washington with President George W. Bush, Bush 43?
Mr. GONZALES: I did. I'd just won a statewide election in 2000. I was on the ballot with the president in Texas. I was on the ballot for a six-year term to remain on the Texas Supreme Court. I was a sitting justice on the Supreme Court of Texas. But when he was elected president, and I was asked to come to Washington to be the White House counsel, I said yes because it is such a unique opportunity to work in the White House, particularly to serve someone that you know fairly well. And so it seemed to me that that was the next logical step in the progression of my profession.
MARTIN: Did you have your sights set on attorney general when you first came to Washington? Was that your dream job?
Mr. GONZALES: Absolutely not. I really was just focused on working in the White House. It is - both jobs are extremely unique. Working in the White House is such a privilege, to wake up every day and to go to the White House to work. Particularly at a senior level position, and particularly for someone that you have a relationship with, it was quite an experience. But at the end of the day, it is only a staff position, when you think about it.
Working as the attorney general, you're a Cabinet official, you have responsibility for 110,000 employees at the Department of Justice, you are the point person for the administration on policy matters in the Congress and before the media, you have line responsibility to really make a difference in the lives of Americans. And so, both jobs are tremendous, and they're wonderful opportunities for different reasons.
MARTIN: I was just wondering, when you first came to Washington, did you say to yourself - I mean, you're obviously an ambitious guy. Did you say to yourself, gee, that's a job I want to have, at some point?
Mr. GONZALES: I don't think so, quite frankly. During the first term, most of the attention on me was whether or not I was going to go on the Supreme Court, and - but I stayed focused on my job. I liked - loved working in the White House. I loved seeing the president every day, and so that was - again, I just - there was a lot to do discharging my responsibilities as a White House counsel. No, I didn't think about becoming attorney general.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. Our guest today is former attorney general, former White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales. Did you - in his last appearance before the White House press corps, President Bush said he never felt the burdens of the office. What about you? Did you?
Mr. GONZALES: Yes. It's - the decisions that we have to make at this level are tremendous, and they're very, very controversial at times. You have to make controversial, tough, hard decisions in these kinds of positions, and you're going to make mistakes. If you think that people don't make mistakes at this level, then you just have no understanding of the responsibilities that exist with this kind of job.
And so, yes, you feel the responsibility, you feel the burden because there is so much at stake, not just domestically, but sometimes there are international consequences to the decision you make. And you want to get it right, and you work as hard as you can to get it right. Fortunately, you're often surrounded by the best and the brightest in this country, and we worked together to try to reach the right conclusion, to reach the right decision on behalf of the American people.
MARTIN: As I mentioned, your tenure - and this is certainly no secret to you - that your tenure as White House counsel and later, attorney general, has been very much criticized by people on both sides of the aisle. Why do you think that is?
Mr. GONZALES: I think, again, because we had to make some very, very tough decisions at probably one of the most unique periods in our nation's history, decisions that have never been confronted or had to be dealt with in our nation's history, not since - probably since World War II because of being a nation at war against terrorism. And when you have to make tough decisions, sometimes you're going to make people unhappy, and that's - just comes with this kind of position. You can't be afraid of controversy. You have to decide what is right and make those decisions. If you're afraid of controversy, you become paralyzed, and you don't make decisions. And so, it just comes with being - with the job, as far as I'm concerned.
MARTIN: One of the things that didn't come out until after you'd left that job, one of the things that people talk about, who will criticize you, is this - something that didn't come out until later. When they talk about the time back in March of 2004, when you and then-chief of staff Andy Card went to the hospital room of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft to get him to reauthorize the domestic surveillance program, which he refused to do, he said the deputy attorney general, James Comey, was in charge. But many people looked at that incident as being just in poor taste, arrogant, abusive. The only thing you publicly said about this subsequently is that you were disappointed that Deputy Attorney General James Comey gave this testimony about that without talking to you about it first. But what's your side of that? Why did you go to his hospital room?
Mr. GONZALES: Well, let me just say that neither Andy or I, and obviously, I can't really speak for Andy, but I think I'm comfortable in saying that neither Andy nor I would have gone there or taken advantage of someone who was sick. Andy and I both, in fact, talked about the importance of satisfying ourselves, as we talked with General Ashcroft, that he was, in fact, competent. We talked about it over at the White House, and we talked about it in the sedan over to the hospital. We were concerned about that.
We were sent there on behalf of the president of the United States, and we had just had a - left a very important meeting with the congressional leadership about a very important intelligence program that the congressional leadership agreed with the president should continue because it was a particularly heightened period of threats against the United States and against our allies. And I might remind your listeners that the very next morning, you had the Madrid train bombings, and so it was a very serious period of time. We had a very important program and everyone - the congressional leadership and the executive branch leadership seemed to feel that this was something that should continue.
MARTIN: Are you saying the president told you to go?
Mr. GONZALES: What I'm saying is that I was sent there on behalf of the president of the United States. The chief of staff and the counsel of the president were - we went to the hospital on behalf of the president to make sure that General Ashcroft had this information. That's why we went to the hospital.
MARTIN: You mean, had the information about the Madrid bombing or had the information that this was of importance to the president and the congressional leadership?
Mr. GONZALES: The Madrid bombing had not happened yet, that would happen the next morning. We went to the hospital to make sure that the attorney general had information about the approval of the congressional leadership. We felt that as a former member of Congress, that that would make a difference for him. And as someone who had been involved in the reauthorization of this program for three years, we felt that that would make a difference. And I would just say that, if I were the attorney general at the time, and the president was about to make a decision over the objection of my deputy, a decision that was consistent with the advice that I had given him for three years, a decision that was consistent with the approval of the congressional leadership, I'd like to know about it.
MARTIN: How did you feel, though, when you found out that Attorney General Ashcroft, Deputy Attorney General James Comey, FBI Director Mueller - all their aides were preparing to resign en masse over this?
Mr. GONZALES: You - I...
MARTIN: Did you know that at the time, that they felt so strongly about this?
Mr. GONZALES: What I will just say as a general manner is that sometimes, people feel strongly about positions and about decisions that are made within the executive branch. Sometimes, people say things in the heat of the moment. At the end of the day, what's important is that we all came together and all came to a resolution that continued - that ensured the continued safety of our country.
MARTN: But I still want to - you worked closely with these people. You worked closely with John Ashcroft. You worked closely with FBI Director Mueller within, obviously, the appropriate boundaries by your respective jobs. I mean, did that not give you pause at all, when they all said that well, we'll quit, we'll all leave?
Mr. GONZALES: Well, I don't know who - again, I can't confirm that these people all were saying, we're all going to leave. Again, lawyers disagree. They often disagree about very controversial issues. They often disagree about the tough legal analysis and legal questions and so, that's what lawyers do. And I think we need to invite that kind of debate, and that kind of discourse, between lawyers on very, very tough issues. And so, the fact that someone may have been unhappy, may have disagreed with a particular decision or legal analysis - that should not surprise anyone.
MARTIN: How did you react when this came out sometime later, when this - that whole visit came out sometime later, in about 2006, about two years later? How did - what was your reaction? You were out of town at the time that the testimony - that James Comey testified. Do you remember how you felt?
Mr. GONZALES: I was disappointed that Mr. Comey had not had the courtesy to at least inform the Department of Justice or the White House that this testimony was coming.
MARTIN: We need to pause here for just a moment, and we're going to continue our conversation with former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales after the break. He's here with me in the studio. Please stay with us on Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. We're continuing our conversation with former attorney general Alberto Gonzales. This is one of very few interviews Mr. Gonzales has granted since stepping down from the Department of Justice in September of 2007. He's here with me in the Washington studio. Welcome back.
Mr. GONZALES: I'm happy to be here.
MARTIN: We've been talking about some of the more controversial episodes in your tenure, both as White House counsel and as attorney general. And I think the second thing that people think about when they think about you is your role in formulating the White House's policies on interrogation techniques. Now, the man designated as the attorney general for the Obama administration, in his testimony before Congress, in his confirmation hearings, has explicitly said that he thinks waterboarding is torture. I want to play a short clip.
(Soundbite of Eric Holder's testimony in a confirmation hearing in Congress)
Unidentified Man: Do you agree with me that waterboarding is torture and illegal?
Mr. ERIC HOLDER (President Obama's Nominee for Attorney General): If you look at the history of the use of that technique used by the Khmer Rouge, used in the Inquisition, used by the Japanese and prosecuted by us as war crimes - we prosecuted our own soldiers for using it in Vietnam - I agree with you, Mr. Chairman, waterboarding is torture.
MARTIN: When you heard that, what was you reaction?
Mr. GONZALES: My reaction was very similar to General Mukasey's reaction, which was a little concern about making a pronouncement like that, concern that would arise in the minds of intelligence officials and lawyers at the department, who all act in good faith, working as hard as they can under very difficult circumstances to give advice and make decisions to protect our country. And when you have that kind of pronouncement, it concerned me as it did General Mukasey. I don't…
MARTIN: General Mukasey being your successor as attorney general.
Mr. GONZALES: Exactly. I don't know whether or not, in making that statement, Mr. Holder had access to all of the opinions, all of the underlying documentation supporting the opinions. Maybe he did, maybe he didn't. The other thing I don't know is how much of the intelligence information Mr. Holder had with respect to the threat that existed at the time these opinions were offered, and the opinions of the intelligence officials about whether their belief in a particular detainee having very important, valuable intelligence information that might save American lives.
And so, I don't know what Mr. Holder did or didn't know in making that statement. And I think that one needs to be careful in making a blanket pronouncement like that if you don't have all the information because of the effect it may have, again, on the morale and the dedication of intelligence officials and lawyers throughout the administration.
MARTIN: And you're worried that officers, persons who participated in these practices may be now prosecuted?
Mr. GONZALES: I don't think that there's going to be a prosecution, quite frankly, because again, these activities for the most part, based on what I know - and there are - obviously, there may be some activities and actions that occurred that I'm not aware of. But in terms of what people really focused on, they were authorized, they were known at the highest levels, they were supported by legal opinions at the Department of Justice. And so, based upon those facts, I think it would be difficult - again, I can't prejudge it and that Mr. Holder, if he is confirmed, will have to make a decision as to whether or not to move forward with the prosecute - an investigation or prosecution, but under those circumstances, I would - I find it hard to believe.
Nonetheless, the very discussion about it is extremely discouraging. And I have talked to officials, senior officials at the CIA, for example, who tell me that agents at the CIA no longer have any interest at doing anything, anything remotely controversial, for fear that they are going to be investigated, and that they have to go out and hire lawyers in order to do their job. And so, it has a very discouraging effect, and the net result of all of that is that people will not be doing what they need to be doing to gain intelligence that will help us connect the dots and protect our country from another attack.
MARTIN: I think what Mr. Holder and those who agree with his position are saying, though, is that it wasn't worth it, that these practices did not yield important information, and that in fact, even if they did, that they damaged America's standing abroad to such a degree that it wasn't worth it. What do you say to that?
Mr. GONZALES: Well, I think as a lawyer, we need to be careful in saying it wasn't - it didn't produce valuable intelligence because my recollection is, is that the intelligence officials gave a contradictory testimony, or have made contradictory statements. They've - they come to the lawyers - intelligence officials come to lawyers and say, we lack this information. In order to get this information, this is what we believe we need to do. As lawyers, we don't say at that point, well, no, we disagree with you. You can get that information in a different way. That's not our job. Our job as lawyers is to say, OK, we will tell you whether or not this can be done lawfully. And so, if the intelligence officials are saying that the information gathered helped protect America, I think we need to take - we need to believe them, as opposed to believing the lawyers who say, I don't think that that's going to be effective.
MARTIN: Well, but civilian control of both the military and these questions is a, sort of a well-established, core value of the United States. And one of our arguments - one of the arguments of the critics is that this - that civilians such as yourself, officers of the government, have a duty to set a bright line. And this is so violative of the values of the American people that on that basis, it's not worth it. What do you say?
Mr. GONZALES: Well, you know, when people talk about values, I don't know whether or not we're talking about my values or your values. Who's values are we talking about? The values of the American people are typically incorporated and reflected in the laws passed by Congress and in our Constitution. That's where our values are easily - can be easily seen, and can be easily interpreted and understood. And so, so long as the actions are consistent with our laws and consistent with our Constitution, I think you can make a very strong argument that the actions taken are consistent with our values.
MARTIN: Are you at all concerned that you will be prosecuted for your role in defending, setting policies around these techniques?
Mr. GONZALES: No, I'm not. Listen, I think only a fool wouldn't be worried about a prosecution motivated for political reasons, or - I mean, Washington can be a very difficult town, a mean-spirited town. But I think if you look at the evidence, and if people tell the truth, I don't see a criminal prosecution for me and of - nor for anyone that I'm aware of. Because again, based on what I have observed, people acted in good faith. They didn't act for political considerations. They didn't act for personal considerations. They acted in the best interests of the United States as they saw it.
MARTIN: Final question on this point, though, that the - your successors in the Obama administration are saying that they don't believe that these techniques are necessary to keep Americans safe. Any regrets on your part?
Mr. GONZALES: Again, I question whether or not it's their role to make that kind of judgment. I think that to the intelligence officials, professionals, it's their judgment to decide whether or not these kinds of - any technique, any technique in the war on terror, whether it be Guantanamo, whether it be interrogation, whether it be in surveillance, it's the role, the responsibility of the intelligence officials to say - to say, this is something that we need to protect America, and for the lawyers to say, well, that can lawfully be done, that cannot lawfully be done.
Now, as a Cabinet official, clearly, the attorney general also has a role of providing his own policy advice to the president of the United States, and we do that. That's my responsibility to tell the president, Mr. President, I think this is lawful, but nonetheless, Mr. President, you need to consider the political ramifications, the ramifications overseas with our allies. So, these are things that are perfectly legitimate for a Cabinet official to tell the president of the United States.
MARTIN: And final point on this, and you may or may not agree with this assessment, but some who've written about this have suggested that there's no daylight, really, between you, Attorney General Ashcroft, your successor, Michael Mukasey, on this question. And yet you are the one who seems to be singled out for particular criticism around these techniques. I wonder if you agree with that assessment and if so, why do you think that is?
Mr. GONZALES: Well, based on my observation - and again, I don't know - you never know what you don't know, but it appears to me that the policies that I supported, and the opinions that I stood behind, are very consistent with General Ashcroft and General Mukasey. I think critics have singled me out above the others, probably…
MARTIN: You do think so.
Mr. GONZALES: Probably because of my relationship with the president. And I think that that's the reason why - that people choose to single me out, as opposed to focusing on General Ashcroft and General Mukasey.
MARTIN: And you think that's unfair?
Mr. GONZALES: Listen, there are lots of things about - that are unfair about life, lots of things unfair about what happens here in Washington. And we all know that when we come into these positions. Things are going to be unfair, and you have to accept that. I just hope that people, over the passage of time, look at this thing dispassionately and see that, in fact, the positions taken by me and embraced by me were very consistent overall throughout the term of the Bush administration, beginning with General Ashcroft and now ending with General Mukasey.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin, and I'm speaking with former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. It strikes me that the other thing at the heart of the criticism of you is that as attorney general, I think the harshest criticism of you is that you undermined confidence in the rule of law by causing or allowing the department to become politicized by the way you managed the firing of the eight U.S. attorneys - and by the way you managed the hiring of career prosecutors. What do you say to that?
Mr. GONZALES: I categorically reject that. I think people that know me, probably they laugh when they hear the fact that I have somehow politicized anything. I am not by nature a very political animal, quite frankly. I care very much about the reputation of the Department of Justice, to dispense justice equally, fairly, evenhandedly. I care very much about the work - the career employees at the Department of Justice. The department is great, not because of the 400 political appointees, but because of the over 100,000 career employees who go to work every day to serve our country. And so, I care very much about those individuals.
I deeply regret some of the decisions made by some of my staff in making hiring decisions. Those decisions were made without my knowledge. Certain questions asked - political questions asked of career employees should not have been asked. I condemn it. I wish I'd - I wish someone had told me that this was going on because I would have done something to stop it. And people would have lost their jobs if I had known about it. And so, that's very, very unfortunate, I think. I regret anything that would in any way diminish the reputation of the Department of Justice in the minds of the American people.
The good thing that I will say about what happened, I want to re - should be reassuring the American people - is that, while there may have been personnel decisions that were politicized, I'm not aware of any evidence that the substantive work of the department was in any way politicized. We have these rules against politicization in hiring decisions in place, so that we don't have political decisions, political considerations, creep in to substantive decisions at the Department of Justice. So the good news is, is that from what I can tell, from what I know, the work of the department continued as the American people deserve to have it continued.
MARTIN: You said you didn't know this was going on. This is precisely the thing that the inspector general criticized you for in a report about this. There are four inspector general's reports that have been issued around your tenure, and some are more critical of you than others. But the one that was released in September of 2008, which was about the firing of the U.S. attorneys says, quote: We concluded that the process the department used to select the U.S. attorneys for removal was fundamentally flawed, and the oversight and the removal process by the department's most senior leaders were seriously lacking. In particular, we found that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty failed to adequately supervise the U.S. attorneys' selection and removal process. They were remarkably unengaged. And the report goes on to say that the statements that you had provided about the reasons for the removal were inconsistent, misleading, and inaccurate in many ways. What do you say to that?
Mr. GONZALES: I think the disappoint - that report was very disappointing to me for a number of reasons. You had an investigation that took over a year to complete. Now, the report was hundreds of pages long, and there really was nothing new in the report. In fact, a year before the report came out, in testimony before Congress, I testified, yes, that the review process had been severely lacking, and that I wish I could have done things differently, and I outlined a series of steps that, in hindsight, I wish I had done differently. And so, no question about it, that - I should have been more engaged in that process.
MARTIN: Why weren't you?
Mr. GONZALES: Because - well, let me just say that I felt that I had identified an individual, my chief of staff, to sort of shepherd the review process, and I made it clear to him that I expected him to consult with the senior leadership of the department, people like Paul McNulty, who had been a former United States attorney, who knew well these individuals or worked with these individuals. And if Paul McNulty makes a recommendation to me, if a recommendation includes his views, I would feel quite comfortable that, in fact, those would be good recommendations coming to me about the qualifications of the work of a particular United States attorney.
But in hindsight, yes, I should have been more engaged and more involved. I will say, however, in terms of - in response to charges that this process was politicized, if you read carefully the report, I think you will see that the report does identify that there were other - there were reasons why I think at least six of the eight were removed, performance-related reasons. And the report was inconclusive with respect to the U.S. attorney from New Mexico, and - but at the end of the day, I think if you look at the report, it does confirm that these individuals were removed for performance-related reasons and not for political reasons.
MARTIN: Well, the laws clearly - I mean, you had the authority to remove any of these people, and people will recall that Web Hubbell, when he became, I think, interim attorney general in the Clinton administration, removed all 93 U.S. attorneys at once. However, there are those who say that your role here was abusive, that it was - that it maligned these individuals unfairly. In fact, I want to play you a short clip of David Iglesias, who was the U.S. attorney for New Mexico, who was speaking to my colleague Terry Gross about this. And here is what he said.
(Soundbite of an interview with David Iglesias by Terry Gross)
Mr. DAVID IGLESIAS (Former U.S. Attorney, New Mexico): Well, Karl Rove had this idea that it'd be possible to actually create a permanent Republican majority in Congress on both sides of the House, and I guess he even went into the White House to have a monopoly over the branch - the two of the three branches of the government. And I think Rove was the first person who was able to figure out that you could use the Justice Department in a partisan way to affect the outcome of elections, using the awesome power of the federal indictment, and what he failed to understand, or refused to understand, was that the Justice Department was one agency that had a long history of staying above partisan matters, that it was the watchdog. It was the agency that provided legal advice to the president about what he could or could not do. And there was the attempt, which began, but I'm glad to say I don't think was successful, but there was the attempt to politicize the Justice Department at the highest levels - and throughout the country, because most of the Justice Department is comprised of the United States attorneys out in the districts. We have a lot more federal prosecutors out in the 50 states than work in Washington D.C.
MARTIN: Now I'm sure you're going to want to respond to this, we only have a about minute left before we need to take a break. But how do you respond to that? Had you ever heard that before, from him?
Mr. GONZALES: I've seen no evidence that Karl Rove or anyone at the White House intended to use United States attorneys to politicize the work of the Department of Justice. I wouldn't have accepted it. And I...
MARTIN: Did Senator Domenici's criticisms of David Iglesias play any role in his being removed?
Mr. GONZALES: Yes, but we get criticism all the time from senators on both sides of the aisle, from members of Congress from both sides of the aisles, about the work of U.S. attorneys. They're involved in making recommendations about who we hire. They're also involved in giving their input about who should be fired as U.S. attorneys.
MARTIN: We need to take a short break, but when we come back, we will have more, a few more minutes with former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Please stay with us. I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News.
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. We have more of our exclusive newsmaker interview with former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, plus a final word from me. It's my "Can I Just Tell You" commentary, and we'll have that in just a few minutes. But first, we're continuing with former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, here with me in the studio.
One of the things that I'm curious about is that you have been criticized from both the left and the right. There are people who complained about your policies, as those policies you participated in as White House counsel. We've just talked about your tenure as attorney general. But when your name was floated as a potential Supreme Court nominee, you would have been the first person of Hispanic heritage to hold that post, as you were the first person of Hispanic heritage to have a top-level Cabinet post. You're very much - there was a lot of consternation on the part of conservatives. Why was that?
Mr. GONZALES: Why was there consternation on the part of conservatives?
MARTIN: Yeah, on the part of conservatives.
Mr. GONZALES: Well, you'd probably be better served by asking them, but I think that there was concerns about my views on abortion. I think there were concerns about my views on affirmative action. People - I think some conservatives believed that I was instrumental in stirring President Bush to take a more middle-of-the-road approach in the Michigan affirmative action cases, which angered, I think, some conservatives.
MARTIN: Is that true?
Mr. GONZALES: Well, at the appropriate time I'll talk a little bit more about that. I supported where the president came out at the end of the day on those cases. But I think, for those reasons, it's my understanding that conservatives were very, very - they were concerned about me, and I think they felt that this was important enough that President Bush should focus on someone who they felt was reliably conservative.
MARTIN: How big of a disappointment was it for you when the president eventually nominated Harriet Miers, and not you?
Mr. GONZALES: Well, it wasn't a question about me versus her; it was a question of choosing the best person, I think, for the president. He, I think - and again, I'm just speculating here - I think it was important for him to try to find a woman to replace Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court, and Harriet Miers, the president had someone that he had known for many, many years, felt comfortable with, and knew that she was a very talented lawyer. And so, you know, I'm disappointed at the way that she was treated, quite frankly, the lack of support that existed with respect to her nomination. But that's the way things are in Washington sometimes, I guess.
MARTIN: But speaking of your status as the first person of a Latino heritage to hold some of these roles, was that important to you when you became White House counsel, when you became attorney general? Were you conscious of being the first?
Mr. GONZALES: I knew that for some portion of the American population, it would be very significant, that there would be a great deal of pride that someone named Gonzales was walking the halls of the West Wing, and that someone named Gonzales was the attorney general of the United States, the chief law enforcement officer of the country. And so, whether you like it or not, in these kinds of positions, you are viewed as a role model, and I take that very seriously, quite frankly. I think it is important for children in the minority community, African-Americans and Hispanic community, to see that it is possible in this great country of ours to do remarkable things, that if you prepare yourself, and you're ready when the opportunity comes along to take advantage of that opportunity, then anything's possible.
MARTIN: Forgive me, though, that is one reason why I believe that it's particularly disappointing for those who believe you did allow the department's hiring practices to become infected by political considerations. Because they say that minorities have looked to the Justice Department as the backstop to that kind of behavior. It's the place that stands with the people who have the least power in holding - upholding the rule of law.
Mr. GONZALES: And I agree with that. It is important for the Department of Justice to exercise that role, and to continue exercising that role. And it's important for the American people to have confidence that the department stands for that proposition. And so, the notion that I would permit or allow this kind of activity, knowingly, is ridiculous. If I'd known about it, it wouldn't have happened.
MARTIN: Do you have any advice for Eric Holder, who will also be a first should he be confirmed as attorney general in the Obama administration? Do you have any advice for him?
Mr. GONZALES: It's - I'm really reluctant to give Mr. Holder advice, given the fact that he's been a United States attorney - he's been the deputy attorney general. The deputy attorney general, people don't understand, really is the chief operating officer of the department. He is there meeting with the assistant attorney generals of the civil division, criminal division, antitrust and tax. He meets with them regularly. And so, he knows better than most with respect to what goes on in the department and how the department operates.
I think that Eric will have the benefit of having seen what's happened in the past eight years. He'll have the luxury of hindsight. And well, you know - listen, mistakes get made in every administration, during the tenure of every attorney general because you have to deal with some very controversial issues. And hopefully, you evaluate those experiences, and you learn from those experiences. And you make good - better decisions going forward.
MARTIN: Where do you think things went wrong for you when you came to Washington, in terms of your tenure in Washington? I get the impression that there is - bittersweetness was the word you used at the beginning of our conversation about your tenure here.
Mr. GONZALES: Well, listen, I'm not sure how productive it is to lament about where things went wrong, quite frankly. Maybe it was inevitable that when you have controversial decisions made during a historic period of time in our nation's history, you know, some people are not going to be happy with some of those decisions. People will not be happy or appreciate your role in how those decisions get made. And so, sometimes people identify someone to target, and I think that's what's happened here with respect to me. And I'm not complaining. Listen, I'm not whining about it. It is - it comes with the job. It is a privilege to serve as counsel of the president, and to serve as the attorney general of the United States. Those are big jobs. And you know what, sometimes with big jobs come big hits. And you accept that. I take comfort from knowing that I did the very best that I could, and played a small part in helping the president protect our country during these past eight years. At the end of the day, sure, I would have done something, some things differently.
MARTIN: Like what?
Mr. GONZALES: But I'd - I take a great deal of pride in the work that we did. And you know, you asked me what. Listen, it would be great. Wouldn't it be great if we could all be perfect? If we all, in hindsight, could redo mistakes that we made. But life doesn't work that way. And so, I focus on moving forward, what lies ahead, and trying to be helpful to make our country even better than before.
MARTIN: One more thing, though, you did - in a conversation with the Wall Street Journal, which is one of the few conversations, one of the few conversations with reporters that you've had since you left the post, that you said that you thought you were one of the casualties of 9/11. How so?
Mr. GONZALES: Well, when I said that, I meant that, again, in these kinds of positions, you're going to be involved in decisions that sometimes get politicized. And to the extent that I got caught in the crossfire of those kind of political disagreements over national security issues, law-enforcement issues, I think that that's a little bit unfair. I didn't mean to say that by that, that I was a casualty in terms of, like, someone who fought overseas and died for our country. All I meant was that, was that, in these difficult times, when you're having to make difficult decisions, sometimes those can be controversial.
MARTIN: What are you up to now? It's been reported that you're at loose ends somewhat professionally, which is very surprising to many people, given that you're a graduate of Harvard Law School, you're a veteran of the United States Air Force, you were on the Texas Supreme Court, you were a White House counsel, you were attorney general of the United States, you were on the short list for the Supreme Court, you were a partner at Vinson & Elkins, a major Texas law firm. It seems customary for somebody with that resume to have your choice of jobs in the legal world, but that doesn't seem to be the case here.
Mr. GONZALES: I think that - listen, there have been investigations, as we've talked about earlier, that have proceeded. Most are now complete. I think that's made a difference, quite frankly, in the eyes of some, who, they want to make sure that those come out the way that I believe they're going to - they should come out, which is that I did nothing wrong here and there be no prosecution. And these are tough economic times...
MARTIN: But the U.S. attorney did - I mean, sorry, forgive me - the inspector general did recommend that there be a further investigation, and the case involving U.S. attorneys has been referred to the U.S. attorney in Connecticut.
Mr. GONZALES: Yes. But the reason for that is, my understanding is because the U.S. - the inspector general could not investigate the White House and could not investigate Senator Domenici. But there was no finding of wrongdoing by me, and there will be no finding of wrongdoing by me in the White House or in Senator Domenici's office. I'm quite confident of that. But at the end of the day, listen, these things have to play themselves out. And I think over - with the passage of time, I think the opportunities that should be afforded to someone with my experiences and my successes I think will present themselves. I'm confident of that.
MARTIN: What do you make of your experience? I'd like to know, if you were in the position to offer advice to someone just starting out who is interested in public service, perhaps a younger you. What would you say? Is there a cautionary tale? Is there a story around your story?
Mr. GONZALES: I would say, first of all, step into the arena of public service. It's extremely important. Our country is great because during extraordinary times, ordinary people have stepped into the arena of public service to serve. And we need that to continue. I think it's important you step into the arena with your eyes open. Otherwise, you're going to get battered. And I think it can be tough, and sometimes it can be unfair. But that should not discourage good people from stepping into the arena. People are going to try to define you in a way - the media and critics will try to define you in a way that serves their purposes. But I would remind people that they can't make it so. They can't make an untruth truthful, even if they repeat it over and over and over again. And then finally, you need to understand that mistakes are going to happen, and the thing you need to do is to identify when those mistakes happen. Hopefully you have the opportunity to correct them, you learn from them, and it makes you a better decision maker in the future.
And so, those are the lessons that I would say. I think particularly in the minority community, we need leadership desperately - in the Hispanic community, African-American community, we desperately need leadership. And one of the best ways to develop those skills is in the arena of public service.
MARTIN: If I could I press you again once more, in just the minute or so we have left. What are you doing now? You only deferred one question I asked you, and that was about your feelings about Harriet Miers, and you said you'll talk about that at some later time. Are you writing a book? Are you planning to tell more of your story?
Mr. GONZALES: I am in the process of writing a book. I think it's important to tell the story. I have a perspective of what happened here, and others do as well, of course. But if I don't tell the story, then who will? And so, it's important for me that people understand what happened in the White House and my experiences, what I saw in the White House and in the Department of Justice. I'm also currently giving speeches, I'm doing some mediation and arbitration, and that's what I'm focused on right now. We hope in the near future to get back to Texas, my family and I. That is our home, and we hope to get back home soon.
MARTIN: And finally, if there's one thing you would like people to draw from our conversation today - is there one thing you would like people to know about you that perhaps they did not, what that might be?
Mr. GONZALES: Well, I don't know what they do or don't know about me, but I can - I want to reassure the American people that I came into these positions with one intent, which was to serve our country, to work as hard as I could, which I did - work as hard as I could to serve our country, to make our country better, and to make our country safer, make our communities better, provide more opportunities for our children.
MARTIN: Alberto Gonzales is the former attorney general of the United States. He served in that post from 2005 to 2007. Before he went to the Justice Department, Mr. Gonzales was also White House counsel to George W. Bush, beginning in 2001. He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C., studios. Mr. Gonzales, I thank you so much for your time.
Mr. GONZALES: It was a pleasure to be here.