Is “Al Gonzales” Spanish For “Stealth Liberal”?

Is "Al Gonzales" Spanish for "stealth liberal?" Conservative activists think so, but their campaign against the likely Supreme Court nominee is a waste of time. In George W. Bush's world, loyalty trumps ideology—and no one has been more loyal than his San Antonio-born consigliere.

IN THE FALL OF 1996, George W. Bush, 21 months into his first term as governor, made a surprise decision: He would show up for Travis County jury duty. He made a very public appearance at the jury screening, telling reporters, “I’m just an average guy showing up for jury duty.” When he arrived at the county courthouse a week later for jury selection for a trial, he schmoozed with his fellow prospective jurors outside the courtroom, asserting to reporters his belief that jury duty was everyone’s responsibility.

But while Bush held forth in the corridor, a meeting was taking place inside the court that would make certain that the governor would never be impaneled. Back in the judge’s chambers, Alberto R. “Al” Gonzales, the governor’s quiet, dapper general counsel and one of his closest advisers, was making a forceful case that his client could not be a juror. Bush had the power to pardon defendants, Gonzales argued, and thus should not vote on their innocence or guilt at trial.

As Gonzales presented his argument, neither the judge nor the attorneys knew quite what to do, according to defense attorney David Wahlberg. “There was nothing in the criminal code to guide us here,” he says. “As far as anyone could remember, a sitting governor had never been called to jury duty before.” Finally, Wahlberg agreed to accommodate Gonzales by removing Bush from the jury. At the time, newspapers reported that Bush was excused as part of a routine defense counsel’s strike, but Wahlberg says that’s not what happened. “It was very clearly at Gonzales’ behest,” he says, adding, with grudging respect, that Gonzales was “professional, well prepared, and persuasive. And he snookered all of us. He approached us informally—and at the last minute—with an argument that I feel was disingenuous at best.”

Why, after Bush had so publicly declared his willingness to serve, did Gonzales move so deliberately to get him off? The answer came four years later. The week before the 2000 presidential election, the story broke that Bush had been convicted in 1976 of driving while intoxicated. As it turned out, the 1996 trial also involved a person charged with driving while intoxicated, which meant that Bush would almost certainly have been asked under oath if he himself had ever been convicted of drunken driving. Gonzales’ intervention meant that Bush would not have to admit his own conviction.

Today the man who fixed George W. Bush’s jury duty is Bush’s White House counsel, one of the most influential lawyers in the country. Given the Bush family’s Mafia-like view of loyalty and trust, it’s not surprising that Gonzales’ service and steadfast devotion have resulted in a meteoric career trajectory—eight years from private practice to the White House—propelled by a series of Bush appointments, which included Texas Secretary of State and Texas Supreme Court justice. He may soon get an even more exclusive post: The 47-year-old is viewed by many as the odds-on favorite to be the next Supreme Court justice of the United States. If that happens, he will be the first Hispanic on the court in American history.

In Washington political circles, where the buzz is that two Supreme Court justices—Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor—may resign this year, the focus is squarely on Gonzales. The handicapping goes like this: Since Rehnquist and O’Connor are Republican appointees, they are more likely to resign under a Republican president in a nonelection year. Though O’Connor, 73, is female, and the 78-year-old Rehnquist putatively to the right of Gonzales, the theory is that Gonzales’ intimate eight-year relationship with Bush—and his obvious appeal to Hispanic voters—easily trumps the president’s need to appoint a woman or a hard-line conservative.

To say that Gonzales is close to Bush understates their relationship. To Bush, he is not only friend, consigliere, and confidant. He is also a potent symbol of American opportunity. Gonzales is a flesh-and-blood Horatio Alger story, the son of dirt-poor migrant farmworkers who clawed his way up from poverty to attend Harvard Law School and become the first minority partner at Vinson and Elkins, one of Texas’ leading law firms. “Al represented the vision that the governor had for the future of Texas,” says Vance McMahan, Bush’s policy chief when he was govenor. “He was very proud of Al.” In his autobiography, A Charge to Keep, Bush gives more ink to Gonzales than to his legendary Iron Triangle of advisers—Karen Hughes, Karl Rove, and Joe Allbaugh—combined. He wept openly at Gonzales’ swearing-in ceremony as a Texas Supreme Court justice. In his second inaugural address in 1999, he devoted an astonishing 662 words to the life and accomplishments of his recently appointed justice, calling him a “great friend” and “a wise and trusted adviser whose counsel I have sought many, many times in the past.”

There is perhaps no better example of Gonzales’ closeness with Bush than his artful intervention in the DWI trial. Though Bush’s own conviction was a deep, dark secret in those days, Gonzales had been trusted with it. “I knew about his Operating Under the Influence arrest in Maine beforehand,” Gonzales says during a telephone interview from his new White House office, which took nearly a month to set up because of his war-related legal duties. “We didn’t know what the case was going to be about. It was only after we arrived that day at the courthouse that we came to know that it was a DWI case. Anticipating that that might happen, we had thought about what we would do, and obviously the governor was there to serve on jury duty and he was going to answer truthfully any question asked of him.”

Gonzales’ job was to make sure that did not happen. “Before the hearing, I went up to the defense lawyer,” he says, “and I mentioned to him that there might be an inherent conflict of interest in having the governor serve. But the defense attorney told me that he had already thought about the possible conflict


More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week