Nov. 14, 2004

Bush's Man From Humble

Is Alberto Gonzales, a self-made Hispanic lawman, a kinder, gentler version of John Ashcroft? The Democrats aim to find out


When George W. Bush returned to the White House on the afternoon of Election Day, chief of staff Andrew Card presented him with a five-page handwritten letter of resignation from Attorney General John Ashcroft. The letter, written a few days earlier and sent quietly to the White House, was in stark contrast to Ashcroft's often brash style as the nation's top cop. The President, distracted by exit polls suggesting that he might be heading for defeat, absorbed the thrust of Ashcroft's missive, then put it aside and said he would deal with it later.

Last week he did. The President nominated Alberto Gonzales, his longtime White House counsel and a former Texas supreme court judge, to replace Ashcroft as head of the more than 100,000-person Justice Department. Gonzales, 49, who for a decade has been at Bush's side in a variety of top jobs, would be the first Hispanic American to take the helm at Justice. He was chosen to change the tone, if not necessarily the shape, of legal policy in the second half of the Bush presidency. "This is the fifth time I have asked Judge Gonzales to serve his fellow citizens," Bush said. "He is a calm and steady voice in times of crisis."

Gonzales' appointment is a vintage Bush move controversial, virtually impossible to stop and bristling with tactical advantage. Social conservatives don't love Gonzales the way they adored Ashcroft, chiefly because the Texan is more moderate on abortion (he sided with a 17-year-old in a parental-notification case in 2000) and on affirmative action (he pushed the White House to take a softer position against college-admissions quotas). On civil liberties and national security, liberals say he is, if anything, more hard-line than Ashcroft.

But on both flanks, there is a growing suspicion that Gonzales' sojourn at Justice, however long it may be, is just the first half of a Texas two-step and that he is being sent through the Senate confirmation process now in part as preparation for a spot on the Supreme Court later.

In any case, Bush gains in Gonzales not only a trusted legal sword but a nifty political shield as well. Bush won re-election with 44% of the Hispanic vote, a new high for the G.O.P. and yet another worry for the Democrats. Said a Republican: "If the Democrats want to attack the first Hispanic Attorney General, well, good luck to them. We'll be happy to take our share of that vote up to 50% next time."

Washington took the nomination in stride because Gonzales has in some ways been functioning as Attorney General for months. Though his title for the past four years has been White House counsel the official term for every President's in-house lawyer his role has been larger than that of any other counsel in memory. That's partly because the White House began to lose patience with Ashcroft not long after he was confirmed. The Attorney General had a political tin ear and a weakness for the spotlight. He drew fire for saying critics of the Patriot Act were giving comfort to the enemy. He operated with a tight cabal of longtime aides who prayed together and had an unrivaled distrust of the Justice bureaucracy. After 9/11, Ashcroft had a way of letting his bloodhounds run off the leash. Under Ashcroft, federal prosecutors won 194 convictions in cases involving terrorism. But those successes were often overshadowed by a handful of too hastily conceived cases against suspected terrorists that were tossed out.

Ashcroft's methods strengthened Gonzales' hand at the White House, where he performed as a kind of Administration superlawyer, overseeing a wide variety of legal policies across the government, as well as the vetting and selection of judicial nominations. But in his wider policymaking role, Gonzales made his own mistakes. After 9/11, his office became the crossroads of much of the Administration's legal thinking in the war on terrorism thinking that has not always stood up under scrutiny.

For example, Gonzales put his name on the January 2002 draft of a legal memo intended for Bush that argued that al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters captured in Afghanistan were not prisoners of war but enemy combatants who had no legal rights under the Geneva Convention, parts of which the memo derided as "quaint." Gonzales contended that "the ability to quickly obtain information from captured terrorists and their sponsors in order to avoid further atrocities against American civilians ... renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on the questioning of enemy prisoners."

The Administration boldly argued that in war the President not only has the power to hold enemy combatants indefinitely but also that the courts have very little authority to review the cases of individual detainees. Theirs was a proposal for a dramatic expansion of Executive power. And when detainees fought their cases up to the Supreme Court, the White House continued to insist that the judiciary did not have much oversight in the matter. The White House lost.

Gonzales later requested a legal opinion from a Justice Department agency that ultimately argued that subjecting suspected al-Qaeda terrorists in captivity to extreme stress "may be justified." When abuses at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison came to light last spring, some Administration critics cited that memo as the legal backbone for the harsher treatment of prisoners, which is now the subject of court-martial proceedings.

"I think, in some ways, Gonzales is more dangerous than Ashcroft," declared Michael Ratner, head of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is suing the Administration to grant due-process hearings to any foreigners at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay. "The person who really took the U.S. outside the law was Gonzales. He opened the door to inhumane treatment and military commissions."

In a rare interview in May, Gonzales told TIME that the word "quaint" in the January memo referred not to his attitude about the Geneva Convention itself but to a handful of ancillary guarantees, such as rules requiring captors to provide prisoners with scientific instruments, athletic uniforms and commissary privileges. The draft memo, he added, was not his work alone and in any case "does not reflect what ultimately went to the President." He would not discuss what did.

That kind of discretion probably comes naturally to a man who hails in more ways than one from Humble, Texas. Alberto Gonzales is the son of Mexican-American migrant workers who raised eight children in a two-bedroom house, set amid tall pines, that his mother still occupies. As a child, he would rise at dawn just to spend some time with his father, a construction worker with only a second-grade education. "Sometimes when I get tired and discouraged," Gonzales has said in speeches, "I think about my father and the burdens he had to carry."

Competitive and athletic, Gonzales played football and baseball in high school and on weekends sold cold drinks at sports events at nearby Rice University in Houston. He joined the Air Force after graduation, and was shipped north of the Arctic Circle as an enlisted Airman. There some officers recognized his potential and encouraged Gonzales to apply to the U.S. Air Force Academy. He enrolled in 1975, hoping to become a pilot, but poor eyesight ruled that out. He transferred two years later to Rice, closer to home. Next came Harvard Law School, and then it was back to Houston and a partner track at the prestigious firm Vinson & Elkins. He caught the eye of Bush-family scouts in the early 1990s, when he was helping out at political events in Texas.

Gonzales has been at Bush's side ever since. He served as legal counsel when Bush was Governor, as Texas secretary of state, then on the state supreme court. Bush calls him "Fredo," a nickname presumably derived from a mangling of his name from Alberto to Alfredo. In 1996 Gonzales saved Bush from a potentially embarrassing moment when he got the then Governor excused from jury duty in a drunk-driving case by arguing that Bush might someday be in a position to pardon the defendant. It was several years before Bush's own DUI record became public.

Gonzales is a modest and extremely hardworking man, traveling alone, flying coach, always keeping a low profile. Colleagues say his judgment is superb; friends say they have never seen him touch alcohol, not even to join in a toast. One co-worker believes Gonzales would be hell in a poker game if he ever let himself play. "At meeting after meeting," he said, "nobody can read him." He reveals what he is thinking to only one man, which explains much of his value to the President.

Senate Democrats told TIME last week that they don't plan to block Gonzales' nomination; they just want to rough him up a bit. "It's encouraging that the President has chosen someone less polarizing," said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York. "We will have to review his record very carefully, but I can tell you already he's a better candidate than John Ashcroft."

Besides, Democrats are saving their strength for Bush's next nomination, one that could come within a matter of weeks. That would fill the Supreme Court opening that will be left by the ailing Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. A 25-year G.O.P. court watcher noted last week that Bush may get as many as three chances to elevate a conservative to the Supreme Court, and predicted that Bush would nominate Gonzales after he has "gotten this Abu Ghraib stuff out of the way." The Justice Department, in this view, would act like the rinse cycle of a dishwasher.

It is not entirely clear that Bush faces a confirmation fight over a replacement for Rehnquist if it amounts to, as a Senate Democratic aide put it, "trading an 80-year-old right-wing conservative for a younger right-wing conservative. You are not actually changing the balance of power." But if a moderate or liberal Justice, such as John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Sandra Day O'Connor, retires, the balance on the bench will be at stake particularly when it comes to the fate of the court's 1973 abortion ruling in Roe v. Wade, which conservatives have said they would like to overturn. If Bush tries to replace any of those Justices with younger, fire-breathing conservatives, said the official, "then it's a fight."

Matthew Cooper; Viveca Novak; Elaine Shannon; Douglas Waller; Cathy Booth Thomas