The Dallas Morning News
Friday, November 12, 2004

AG nominee, 'ultimate success story'

By KAREN BROOKS and ERNESTO LONDOÑO / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN He was never much for the spotlight, never class president or the one picked "Most Likely to Succeed."

But from a crowded impoverished home under the flight patterns on the outskirts of Houston to the brink of the nation's top law-enforcement officer, Al Gonzales has made the journey look easy, say his friends, family and even some political enemies.

Despite his humble beginnings, the general counsel to President Bush didn't scratch and claw his way to the top, those who know him say.

"He's the ultimate success story that you want to see and read about," said Texas state Rep. Pete Gallego, a West Texas Democrat who counts the Republican lawyer among his friends.

Mr. Gonzales, 49, grew up in a close-knit family in San Antonio and Humble the second of eight children. He played football and baseball in high school and did well in the classroom.

But the soft-spoken Texas-born son of Mexican migrant workers was "not the kind to trample over someone else to get what he wants," said his mother, Maria Gonzales, a housekeeper at a funeral home in Humble. "Opportunities have simply come before him, and he has taken them," she said.

The White House general counsel has gone through life with "as little fanfare as possible," said Marine Jones, his high-school guidance counselor.

His nearly 10 years in public service have brought down high accolades and harsh scrutiny from both ends of the political spectrum. Some conservatives have questioned whether he's too moderate and others worry that his loyalty to Mr. Bush might interfere with his ability to do his job.

And it has brought down some unwanted attention on his shy but proud mother who heard the news of her son's nomination for attorney general when he called to tell her personally earlier this week.

"He feels ready to take the job, otherwise he wouldn't have accepted it," Ms. Gonzales said during an interview in front of her home. "But he asked me to pray for him."

No regrets

The life story of Mr. Bush's nominee to replace Attorney General John Ashcroft has taken Mr. Gonzales from a two-bedroom house, to subzero temperatures at Fort Yukon, Alaska, to a top-flight Houston law firm, to the Capitol of Texas, and finally to the White House.

"I never imagined state dinners, rides on Air Force One or weekends at Camp David," Mr. Gonzales told the graduating class of his alma mater, Rice University in Houston, in a commencement address in May. "How would you live your life differently, starting today at this very moment, if you knew that one day you would befriend a president?"

According to those who know him, Mr. Gonzales wouldn't have changed much. Public service always held a certain fascination for him, friends say.

"In many ways, he's an idealist," said Austin lobbyist Reggie Bashur, who worked with Mr. Gonzales in the governor's office. "He holds, I think, real and true meaning to the phrase public service.

His parents Maria and Pablo met in San Antonio as migrant workers in the cotton plantations. They married in 1952 and began a family. Alberto Gonzales was their second child.

The family moved to Humble a few years later, where Pablo Gonzales worked construction and later in a rice mill to support his eight children. When Alberto Gonzales was a boy, he played in the field near the airport later named after President George H.W. Bush where his dad and two uncles built their two-bedroom wood-frame home with no hot running water and no telephone.

He would get up at dawn and watch his mother prepare a brown-bag lunch of beans and tortillas for his father before he went to work.

At Aldine MacArthur High School, he played baseball and football for the MacArthur Exemplary Generals.

He distinguished himself from his 400 mostly Anglo classmates through his intelligence, hard work and quiet respect for others, Ms. Jones recalled.

"He wasn't one of those kinds of leaders, or leadership had not made its appearance at that time," she said. "He wasn't in that category, but apparently he had it. It was just hidden."

College years

Knowing that his parents couldn't afford to send him to Rice University where he'd dreamed of going as a 12-year-old hawking soft-drinks in the football stands he graduated from high school in 1973, joined the Air Force and later went to the Air Force Academy.

It was there that he realized he was more interested in politics and law. In 1977, he received his Rice University acceptance letter and became the first member of his family to go to college. His dad lived to see him graduate, and then died in a rice mill accident a few years later, when Mr. Gonzales was 26.

After graduating from law school at Harvard University, he came back to Texas and began working for Vinson & Elkins law firm in Houston. His intelligence and attention to detail served him well, colleagues say, and he made partner in 1991.

"He was a very good colleague, and he was willing to listen and was thoughtful about everybody's views on a matter," said Joe Dilg, one of Mr. Gonzales' bosses at V&E.

Then-Gov. George W. Bush tapped him as his general counsel in 1995 after a recommendation from a fellow attorney, and later appointed him secretary of state.

His staff from that time describes him as "a boss who was also a friend" and someone who was loath to micromanage his employees.

In 1999, he was appointed to the Texas Supreme Court in spite of having no experience in jury trials. In January 2001, he joined the new White House administration as general counsel.

True to roots

Power and success have not changed the core of Mr. Gonzales' personality, said his mother, who still lives in his childhood home in Humble.

"When he calls, he tells me how much he loves me," she said. "He hasn't forgotten his roots he remembers where he came from."

Ms. Gonzales says her sons have urged her to retire from her housekeeping job. But as long as she's fit to work, it's out of the question, she said.

"This gives me something to wake up for in the morning," she said. "I was taught to depend on myself and not be a burden on anyone."

The spotlight on her son promises to grow only brighter as the U.S. Senate prepares for confirmation hearings, and even the political foes who personally like the San Antonio-born attorney warn that things could get ugly.

Analysts are speculating that Mr. Gonzales is likely to be questioned heavily on his legendary loyalty to Mr. Bush, his close friend and golf partner, and whether it will interfere with his ability to do his job fairly.

Two sides

In the White House, Mr. Gonzales' stances have typically gone toward giving more power to the presidency and government in the war on terror.

On the flip side, however, he was criticized by Texas conservatives when he voted as a Supreme Court justice to allow a 17-year-old girl in Houston to get an abortion without telling her parents.

Without divulging his opinion on abortion, he said he was just enforcing a new state law that allowed a girl to bypass notifying her parents if she proved she was mature enough to handle it alone.

"It seemed to me that he was trying to moderate himself, thinking that's what it took in order to win a higher position, whatever his sights were set on," said Cathie Adams, executive director of the socially conservative Texas Eagle Forum. "That to me is not a statement of principle, but of politics."

Those who have known Mr. Gonzales for several years say that loyalty is an integral part of his character but that if personal loyalties were to clash with what he believed to be the letter of the law, the law would win.

"First and foremost, he is respectful of the rule of law," said U.S. Deputy Chief of Protocol Jeff Eubank, who was Mr. Gonzales' general counsel during his time as secretary of state. "Clearly he has shown, time and time again, the fact that for him, the rule of law is the most important thing."

Staff writers David Jackson and Pete Slover contributed to this report with Ernesto Londoño of Al Día reporting from Houston.

Al Gonzales

Historical significance: If confirmed by the Senate, the 49-year-old Texan would become the first Hispanic attorney general.

Bush ally: Mr. Gonzales has been a Bush confidant for more than a decade, named by him to several high-profile jobs: starting in 1995 as chief counsel for the governor and later as Texas secretary of state and justice on the state Supreme Court. In 2001, he became top lawyer at the White House, overseeing legal opinions and the selection of judicial nominees.

Washington reviews: Described as quiet, practical and thorough, Mr. Gonzales has been at the center of developing and defending President Bush's approach in fighting terrorism. His views have often angered civil-liberties and human-rights groups. Conservative legal experts have praised him as a consensus-builder who has fought to help the country protect itself.

Texas ties: He grew up in a two-bedroom house in Humble with seven siblings. He graduated from Aldine MacArthur High School in 1973 and enlisted in the Air Force. After four years he cast aside his dream of becoming a pilot to pursue a career as a lawyer. He went on to graduate from Harvard University and worked as a corporate attorney with the Houston law firm Vinson & Elkins.

Family: Wife, Rebecca, and three sons

From wire reports