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.

October 1992By Comments

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 fully embraced the traditions of that battle: He’s always badly outnumbered, always under siege, but constitutionally incapable of surrender or retreat.

WHEN GONZALEZ MADE HIS FIRST SPEECH on the House floor about Iraqgate last February, he began not with revelations about the scandal but with a personal plea. Partly an attack and partly a justification, it was a self-portrait of a man who feels isolated and unappreciated. He acknowledged that “lobbyists and newspaper editors and trade press” have been prone to say “that I am bizarre, or that, they do not use the word ‘peculiar’ or anything, but they use another word, a synonym, to describe behavior of a man that does not cut his hair in accordance with the traditions around this place or in many other legislative centers. That is that I do not have fundraisers in Washington.” He continued in this vein—“Some were dissatisfied last year because they felt I had been too active, and others because I had called the shots as I saw them”—for around two thousand words before getting to the subject of Iraq.

I first met Gonzalez 22 years ago, when I was a reporter for the San Antonio Light, and his vision of himself as a starkly isolated defender of unpopular ideas was strong even then. It had been forged in the battles of the fifties—as a San Antonio city councilman fighting the local business establishment and as a state senator filibustering against segregationists. One morning I was assigned to cover a speech the congressman was giving at an elementary school on San Antonio’s West Side. He brought the children a flag that had flown over the U.S. Capitol and talked to them in simple language about patriotism. Liberty isn’t free, he warned. After the speech, I rode along in Gonzalez’s old clunker station wagon for the rest of the day’s appointments.

Wherever we went, people idolized him. They called him “Henry B”—although a few old-timers called him by his childhood nickname, “Kiki.” We stopped at a small restaurant just west of downtown San Antonio, which had a black and white photograph of a younger Gonzalez in boxing trunks—dukes up—pinned to the wall. Gonzalez laughed but quickly boasted of his still-vicious left hook.

He’s one of those men whose life story can be told in punches. In 1963, when a Republican congressman from West Texas named Ed Foreman called Gonzalez a “pinko” on the floor of the House, Gonzalez slugged him and demanded that Foreman step outside so he could finish the job. In 1986, when a San Antonio man called him a communist in a downtown restaurant, Gonzalez hauled off and belted him. “I can still hit,” he told the newspapers at the time.

Over the years Gonzalez and I have had many talks, usually over breakfast at Earl Abel’s in San Antonio or in the House dining room in Washington. What I learned from those meetings is that Gonzalez possesses an astonishing intellect and is motivated by the noblest intentions of politics. At his core he believes great ideas matter, and the main ideas of democracy—liberty, freedom, equality—must be fostered and protected on behalf of the many, not the few. At the same time, however, Gonzalez has never achieved as large a place in history as he believes he deserves because he has   never made the kind of compromises necessary to maintain valuable political relationships. All his public life he has put ideas ahead of individuals. The image he carries inside is that of the lonely fighter, the boxer-intellectual who fought the battles no one else would fight.

This self-imposed isolation began as soon as Gonzalez was elected to Congress in 1961. The late Bob Poage, then a congressman from Waco, decided to give him a small welcoming party. Most of the Texas delegation came, but Gonzalez never showed up for his own party. “We toasted him in absentia,” said one who was there. Gonzalez is a teetotaler whose idea of fun is working out regularly in the House gym, studying mathematics and reading history and Latin primers. (He punctuated a speech last April with “Non redolent pecunia”—Latin for “Money has no nationality.”)

Memory is the indispensable sustenance of politics, and no politician has a longer memory than Henry B. He was the first Mexican American elected to the San Antonio City Council in 1953. He can remember when he was thrown out of a public swimming pool in New Braunfels because he was Mexican. He can remember entire passages from his 36-hour filibuster against segregationist laws in 1957. He remembers when Lyndon Johnson thanked him for helping in the 1964 campaign and told Gonzalez, “I want to help my Mexican friends in Texas. If you know of any who would make good appointments to federal jobs, you just let me know.” His response to the president was polite but chilly: “If I know of a good person, I’ll be glad to give you his name,” he told Johnson, “and if that person happens to be Mexican American, so much the better.” He was one of the few minority members who objected to the Voting Rights Act, predicting it would lead to ethnic separation and the balkanization of American politics.

But there is another side to Gonzalez besides the lonely fighter. He is as prone to battle over turf as over ideas. He quit the chairmanship of the assassinations committee because he failed to win a squabble with the committee’s chief counsel. When his aide, Albert Bustamante, went into politics on his own, Gonzalez blasted him. “There’s only one politician in Henry B’s office, and I violated the rule,” Bustamante, now a congressman himself, told me a few weeks ago. “I don’t blame him. He is an unquestioned hero.”

Not long after former San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros was elected to the city council in 1975, he wrote a letter to Gonzalez, vowing never to run against him for any office. Later Cisneros supported naming the convention center after Gonzalez. He was hoping to avoid Gonzalez’s mistrust. The strategy failed. Gonzalez saw him as a rival nonetheless, not for office but for the judgment of history: Whose approach to politics and whose accomplishments in office were greater? His turf-consciousness helps explain why Iraqgate is not a campaign issue: Gonzalez is miffed at Bill Clinton because Clinton asked Cisneros to play such a prominent role in the presidential campaign.

These imagined slights plague most of Gonzalez’s relationships, including ours. When I attempted to interview him for this story, Gonzalez refused in writing and referred in his letter to a breakfast appointment that he thought I had missed a few years back. I replied that the two of us must have miscommunicated because I didn’t remember missing any such appointment, but he didn’t answer. “Hell,” said Maury Maverick, Jr., who ran against Gonzalez in a 1961 special election for the U.S. Senate, “Henry B’s one of the finest fellows in Texas, but I’ve been falling in and out with him for years. Ain’t nothing new about that.”

THE FAILURE OF A SMALL STATE BANK in the South Texas town of Carrizo Springs back in 1976 first aroused Gonzalez’s concern about the lack of regulation of foreign-owned banks operating in the U.S. It was to become one of his legislative obsessions. Thirteen years later, after Gonzalez spotted a one-paragraph story in the Wall Street Journal about how an Atlanta branch of an Italian-owned bank had issued a $2 billion line of credit to Iraq, he ordered banking committee staff to find out if the bank was continuing to make similar loans. Gonzalez’s hunch paid off, big time. Here are some of the fruits of that investigation:

• In 1989, Bush signed a secret directive calling for more aid and closer ties to Iraq. Iraq soon became a large participant in the Commodity Credit Corporation, through which the Department of Agriculture guaranteed bank loans for Iraq to buy American farm products.

• Iraq diverted food purchased with federally backed loans to buy weapons and military equipment from other countries. Investigators suspect the food was traded for weapons in the former Soviet Union. For instance, rice left Houston for Baghdad, but there is no documentation it ever arrived.

• Iraq used agricultural credits to obtain illegal loans from Banca Nazionale del Lavoro, the Atlanta branch of a bank owned by the Italian government, at below-market interest rates. Bank officials, indicted in 1991 on a variety of federal charges, have pleaded guilty to bank fraud. Iraq defaulted on the government-backed loans, costing U.S. taxpayers at least $400 million.

• The scandal goes beyond banking transactions. With the approval of the Department of Commerce, Iraq was able to acquire from U.S. companies sophisticated equipment and technology that could be used for military purposes.

Gonzalez’s revelations have forced the Bush administration to renounce its pre-war policy of helping Iraq. Last May, then Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger told another congressional committee, “When you’ve got a policy that didn’t work, it isn’t easy to defend.” What Bush and Gonzalez are fighting over is whether the Bush administration was involved in a criminal cover-up. Gonzalez and others have charged that officials in the White House interfered with prosecutors investigating the Atlanta bank and knowingly lied to Congress about the extent of Iraqi purchases of military equipment.

A Commerce Department official has testified that a list of export items approved for sale to Iraq prior to the Gulf War was subsequently altered 68 times to omit references to military applications. According to the official, the altered list was prepared by White House officials and top aides to Secretary of Commerce Robert Mosbacher.

In the three years since Gonzalez first read about the bank loans to Iraq, he has encountered bizarre twists and turns. In one instance, Iraq turned out to own at least 30 percent of a North Carolina company that sells base plates for artillery shells to the U.S. military. Gonzalez’s investigators discovered that the company also sold its base plates to Iraq’s army, which may have purchased them with money from illegal bank loans.

Another strange moment occurred at a hearing when a government inspector testified he had no evidence that any agricultural goods bound for Iraq had been diverted. Later the inspector general of the Agriculture Department said he had no evidence the goods had actually arrived. All the documents concerning the transaction were in Arabic. “Does anyone in your office read Arabic?” asked a committee member. “No,” replied the inspector general. Nor, it turned out, had anyone bothered to have the documents translated.

The duel between Gonzalez and the administration escalated in early August when Central Intelligence Agency director Robert Gates criticized Gonzalez for releasing “top secret, compartmented, and particularly sensitive” intelligence material on Iraq. (This is the way Washington works: Gonzalez, who was investigating the CIA’s role in the scandal, is now under investigation by the CIA. He has also been warned to hire a bodyguard. The hunter becomes the hunted.) The floor speech that rankled Gates was one in which Gonzalez—relying on CIA reports—described how the Iraqis, operating through the Atlanta bank, bought military technology that could be used to build a nuclear bomb.

The White House insists that there is no cover-up. Attorney General William Barr defended the alteration of the Commerce Department documents as an attempt to correct “inaccurate perception.” Barr declined to appoint a special prosecutor. But Gonzalez has one more hearing set on Iraqgate. Christopher Drogoul, the former vice president of the Atlanta bank who made the Iraqi loans, is scheduled to testify on September 17, after this article goes to press.

Even if these hearings do uncover more damaging evidence, the impact may be lost because Gonzalez insists on making his case in his own eccentric way. His last floor speech was a good illustration. It was an impeccably documented account of the way Iraq used a vast array of front companies in the U.S. to purchase military equipment. But for every shocking point Gonzalez made, there were tedious and hard-to-follow digressions. At one point he launched into a story about the Korean CIA and how years ago it brought “beautiful Korean girls” into the U.S. “They reached former President Eisenhower in Pennsylvania,” claimed Gonzalez, apropos of nothing about Iraqgate, “and took the girls to have a private dance with him.” Near the end of his remarks, Gonzalez expressed frustration at not being able to get the answers to the nagging questions about Iraqgate. “What is it going to take?” he asked. But there was no answer because the House chamber, as usual, was empty.

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