The Outsider

Former attorney general Alberto Gonzales was vilified for sanctioning torture, endorsing domestic spying, playing politics with the Department of Justice, and for giving one of the most evasive testimonies in Senate history. Since leaving Washington, no other member of the Bush administration has been as thoroughly ostracized. Does he deserve it?
The Outsider
Alberto Gonzales
Photograph by Artie Limmer

UPDATE:The Department of Justice has dropped its investigation of former attorney general Alberto Gonzales regarding the firings of nine U.S. attorneys on political grounds.—July 22, 2010

On May 1, 2010, a Pakistani-born American citizen named Faisal Shahzad drove a dark-green Nissan Pathfinder rigged with explosives into Times Square. He parked near Minskoff Theatre, which would soon be packed with children eager to see The Lion King, and then abandoned his vehicle, slipping away virtually unseen. He left the engine running and the car interior smoldering, hoping to murder hundreds of people.

Luckily, Shahzad’s handiwork was discovered, and he was arrested and pulled off an Emirates jet bound for Dubai. As news reports out of New York quickly rekindled memories of 9/11, TV pundits across the nation began heatedly debating the nature of terrorism and the government’s response. That the failed attack had taken place within the same six-month window as two other unsettling events—the shootings at Fort Hood last November by Nidal Malik Hasan and the attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to set off a bomb on a Detroit-bound jet on Christmas Day—was even more disturbing. In a press conference a few days later, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called it “a stark reminder of the reality that we face.”

The same night that Shahzad was executing his plan, Holder’s predecessor, Alberto R. Gonzales, was having a quiet dinner with his wife, Rebecca, at a Ruby Tequila’s in Lubbock. The former attorney general didn’t learn about the incident until the next morning, when he turned on the Sunday talk shows. Watching TV at home, Gonzales felt his skepticism kick in. He knew from his days in Washington that early reports of terrorist incidents were often inaccurate, and he winced when he heard the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, describe the Times Square attempt as a one-off. Gonzales also felt impatient with reporters who were surprised that the work might be that of a homegrown terrorist. He had been expecting this for years; it was inevitable in an open society. He wondered too what we did not know—he still used the word “we,” even though he was out of government—and mused on what we could do under the Constitution to collect information.

Listen, we’re in a war, and the only way to win a war is to be tough,” he would tell me several weeks later, noting that the Obama administration has continued many of the policies he gave legal blessing to, both as White House counsel and as AG under George W. Bush. “Everyone is learning that to be successful in this environment, you have to go to the limit of what the Constitution allows.”

If there was a note of vindication in his voice, he could be forgiven. It is hard to recall a public official in modern times who has been as vilified as Gonzales: He’s remembered, rightly or wrongly, as the man who labeled the Geneva Conventions “quaint” and who said that nothing in the Constitution expressly guaranteed the right of habeas corpus to U.S. citizens. He presided over a time when there appeared to be unprecedented attempts to limit civil rights and expand presidential power. He is said to have sanctioned the likes of waterboarding and fired U.S. attorneys for their lack of loyalty to Bush’s cause. He was the subject of three inspector general reports. “I’m not sure there’s anyone who’s been investigated as much as me with no finding of wrongdoing,” Gonzales told me.

Still, “resigned in disgrace” is in the fifth sentence of his Wikipedia entry. The right thinks he’s a marshmallow, the left thinks he’s a war criminal, and many Latinos think he’s an embarrassment to his own people. None of this criticism surprises Gonzales, who has developed a sanguine view of his reputation. “Either I had little to do with the development of policies because I was weak and not bright,” he wrote to me in an e-mail, “or I was a brilliant mastermind responsible for everything controversial, and able to manipulate the entire executive branch to give the President what he wanted.”

Whatever the reasons, Gonzales can hardly be considered a winner in the former administration’s Where Are They Now annals. Bush is completing his memoirs, for which he is rumored to have received an advance of about $7 million. Karl Rove? On top of the $1.5 million he received for his memoirs, he’s bloviating as a Fox News contributor. Dick Cheney got a book deal too, for a reported $2 million, and remains a hero to the right. Former aide Karen Hughes? Global vice chair with the PR firm Burson-Marsteller. Harriet Miers, the near-miss Supreme Court nominee? She’s a partner with the Dallas law firm Locke, Lord, Bissell & Liddell, where she has served as a lobbyist for the Embassy of Pakistan, a $900,000-a-year contract for the firm. John Yoo, the author of the so-called torture memos? He’s teaching law at the University of California, Berkeley, and is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute—and has done so well as to trounce Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.

In contrast, Gonzales can boast two offices at Texas Tech University, where he is a diversity recruiter and a visiting professor, teaching a political science course titled Contemporary Issues in the Executive Branch to fifteen students for an annual salary of about $100,000. And while it’s true that he’s popular with his students (“One of the best classes I’ve had at Tech,” one told me), who write papers on topics like the “disposition of detainees,” it’s also true that when Texas Tech chancellor Kent Hance threw him a lifeline last year, Gonzales was pretty much out of options. He had become a pariah in Washington, where people did their best to avoid him, and his consulting business was going nowhere. His old law firm, Vinson & Elkins, had told him it wasn’t the right time to take him back. And though he was shopping a memoir, he had

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