Alberto R. Gonzales, the son of a Mexican cotton picker and construction worker, came under national scrutiny while serving as attorney general under George W. Bush in the midst of 9/11. A Republican lawyer from Houston, he was known to have “the president’s ear” on the legality of intelligence and torture in the heat of the constitutional battle over terrorism. Did Gonzales’s loyalty to the president override his duty to the American people? Here’s the story behind the story.
Why did you decide to write about the controversial former attorney general?
I was interested in why he ended up teaching at Texas Tech. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but I would have expected him to find a far more lucrative job in Washington or in Houston.
How early did you start researching the Gonzales story?
First, I started reading about him—Bill Minutaglio’s bio [The President’s Counselor: The Rise to Power] and many books about terrorism and the Bush administration, including Jane Mayor’s The Dark Side, Barton Gellman’s Angler, and others. Then I looked at clippings, then I started going through various inspector general reports. What struck me was that because Gonzales is so reserved—what he is like, what he believes—the truth about him was very hard to discern.
How much time do you generally give yourself to research, interview, and write stories? Was this story different?
It really depends on the story. This one took a few months because there was so much material that had been written. Some stories are much more straightforward and take far less time. I am, however, still looking for an easy story. Have yet to find one.
How do you deal with your personal views on difficult and controversial subject matters—in this case the legality of torture—when writing?
Sometimes my personal views inform a piece, but I try to educate myself to make sure that my views are … educated. Then I use what I think I know to form questions. Gonzales often disagreed with me, but I found I couldn’t really ask him intelligent questions until I had studied a great deal.
Was Gonzales a difficult person to talk to?
He was difficult in that he was very wary, because he feels he has been misunderstood and misquoted, and very careful. He is very precise in his language—he’s a lawyer—so many times he corrected my assumptions.
What did you think when Gonzales brought you a marked-up copy of his Wikipedia entry? That he was out to defend himself and justify his actions?
I just thought that spoke to his concern for precision. I had asked him about his Wiki entry, and he had never read it. When he did read it, he was appalled, so he corrected it so that I wouldn’t make mistakes in the story.
What do you think about the current state of terrorism and its reactions in the U.S.?
I think we live in a very dangerous world, and can take nothing for granted. At the same time, we have to be very careful that we don’t lose the civil liberties that have made this country so unique. Finding that balance is nearly impossible.
How do you think the relationship between Bush and Gonzales has changed?
I don’t think it ever changed. I think Gonzales remains loyal to this day to Bush, and grateful for all the opportunities he was given. I imagine that Bush also feels loyal to him.
Do you feel that the current administration has carried on some of Gonzales’s policies on terrorism and interrogation?
Yes. The difference is one of style. The Bush administration tended to bully its way through; the Obama administration is much more interested in consensus and more concerned with PR in terms of getting consensus.
What do you think Gonzales’s legacy will be in Washington?
I think it is too soon to tell. It really depends on what happens and how the country reacts. If there are far more terrorist attacks and the government responds by continuing the Bush policies, Gonzales’s reputation will probably become enhanced.