The Eternal Challenger

Henry B. Gonzalez has made a career out of jabbing at political heavy-weights. Now he’s finally landed a punch—on George Bush.

LATE ON A TUESDAY NIGHT TOWARD the end of July, Congressman Henry Barbosa Gonzalez of San Antonio took to the House floor and called the president of the United States a liar. The occasion was another of his rambling speeches about the simmering political scandal of the summer, known as Iraqgate—Gonzalez’s accusations that the Bush administration helped arm Iraq prior to the Persian Gulf War and subsequently tried to cover up the evidence. As usual, the 76-year-old Gonzalez spoke to an almost empty chamber, the House having concluded its major business for the day. A substitute speaker, a handful of clerks, and the all-important C-SPAN camera crew watched as Gonzalez turned his rocky face toward row after row of empty brown leather chairs.

Looking somber and purposeful, like Moses the Lawgiver, Gonzalez began by laying out the main points of the scandal as he saw them. First, for more than two years before Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, the Bush administration knew that Iraq was diverting American food and U.S.—backed loans and exchanging this aid for arms that were later used against American troops. Second, in an attempt to conceal the failed policy of aiding Iraq, top aides to Bush misled Congress. Third, prior to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, U.S. companies were selling Iraq components to make nuclear weapons, with the full knowledge of the Bush administration.

“The president was not telling the truth,” Gonzalez said, referring to Bush’s denial that the U.S. had enhanced Iraq’s nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons capability. Suddenly, from out of nowhere stepped gray-haired Robert Walker of Pennsylvania, the Republicans’ self-appointed watchdog for these after-hours sessions. “Mr. Speaker!” interrupted Walker. “I demand that the gentleman’s words be taken down!”—parliamentary language for stricken from the record. Apparently it is against the rules of the House of Representatives to call the president a liar.

Gonzalez stood silent as confusion swept the podium where Walker and the temporary speaker huddled. The silence lasted a television eternity, at least four minutes. Finally Gonzalez agreed to rephrase his charge. Instead of calling Bush a liar, Gonzalez said, “The president’s explanations as given thus far are not in conformity with the documentation that I am about to present.” Then he dumped into the public record a 1989 State Department memorandum which described the administration’s policy of not selling nuclear weaponry to Iraq as “very hard to implement.” Why? Because, the memorandum said, Iraqi-owned front companies in the U.S. were selling Iraq equipment needed to build such weaponry.

This was a typical moment in Gonzalez’s long crusade to expose Iraqgate—dramatic and important on the one hand, but confused and largely unnoticed on the other. If Gonzalez is right, George Bush himself or, at the very least, senior members of his inner circle knowingly violated the law. But while elements of the scandal have been reported in the nation’s leading newspapers—the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal, so far Iraqgate hasn’t deeply penetrated the public consciousness. Nor has it come front and center during the campaign. Iraqgate failed to get a single mention during the Democratic National Convention in New York. One reason Iraqgate has gone largely unnoticed is that it’s a very complicated scandal. The other reason is that Henry B. Gonzalez is a very complicated man. Gonzalez is sitting on vast amounts of documentation that he believes could—and should—bring down a president. But he doesn’t know what to do with it. Even though he is chairman of the House Committee on Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs, Gonzalez remains, as he has been for all of his 31 years in Congress, an outsider. He doesn’t play the influence game by the rules of modern politics: court the press, give the networks their sound bites, ingratiate yourself with the lobby. Instead, he refuses to hold Washington fundraisers, limits contributions from political action committees, and thinks in dense chunks.

The Washington Post has described him as a modern-day King Lear, communing on the House floor with ghosts. He has spoken frequently on the collapse of the gold standard, San Antonio politics in the fifties, crime, poverty, and all manner of corruption, real and imagined. His chairmanship of a special committee inquiring into the Kennedy and King assassinations in 1977 turned into such a fiasco that he had to quit. Gonzalez’s soliloquies in the House have included calls for the impeachment of three presidents (Nixon, Reagan, and Bush). In his mind, a congressman has only two weapons—his voice and his vote—and Gonzalez has never minimized either one. For the most part Gonzalez has been disregarded because he is viewed as an eccentric, moody man whose political behavior is off-center.

So when Gonzalez made the first of what is now 23 speeches on Iraqgate in February 1991, he received scant attention. But when he began placing incriminating classified documents into the public record, Washington couldn’t ignore him any longer. “I don’t think anyone considers him a nut anymore,” said New York Times columnist William Safire, who was among the first to write about Gonzalez’s disclosures. The investigation that started in Gonzalez’s banking committee has now expanded to six other committees in the House and three in the Senate. “Gonzalez has wiped a lot of smirks off faces in Washington,” said Safire. “I know for a fact that the people at the Justice Department are scared stiff of him.”

Gonzalez is succeeding in spite of himself. He is a paradox—a politician who won’t play by the rules, a prophet who won’t use the language necessary to call forth his people. When speaking out on Iraqgate, he avoids the networks and their haughty anchors, preferring instead to mainline his message in long, unedited speeches to loyal C-SPAN viewers.

Perhaps it’s the Alamo mystique at work in him. After all, the Alamo, the embodiment of the romance of lost battles, lies in the center of Gonzalez’s district in San Antonio. Like William B. Travis, another moody Texan, Gonzalez has

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