Inside the Beltway
Executive editor S. C. Gwynne talks about Al Gonzales, getting access, and Washington politics.
texasmonthly.com: This is the third story you’ve written recently about high-powered Washington players—Dick Cheney and Karl Rove are the others—who left Texas with the Bush administration. Is there a sense in Washington now that Texans are running the show?
S. C. Gwynne: There are Texans everywhere in Washington, on all levels but especially at the White House. Most of them—like Al Gonzales and staff secretary Harriet Miers and Karl Rove—came with Bush after he was elected. Because they are Texans, and because we all knew them and covered them while they were here, we have a special interest in them. We think our readers do too.
texasmonthly.com: How tough was getting access to Gonzales, and how much homework had you done by the time you spoke to him?
SCG: It was very tough because of the war in Iraq. Gonzales was in all the war councils and was involved in the many, many legal issues that have arisen over the U.S. presence in Iraq. It took about a month of persistent calling before I finally got to him. By that time, I had interviewed so many of his friends and associates—many with Gonzales’ express permission—that it would have seemed odd if he had not talked to me. Unfortunately, wars make the conduct of ordinary business extremely difficult.
texasmonthly.com: Were any of these new challenges for you?
SCG: No. It’s the same old thing: the pesky reporter trying to talk to someone for whom a media interview is an extremely low priority.
texasmonthly.com: How willing was Gonzales to discuss his chances at a Supreme Court nomination?
SCG: He wasn’t willing at all, for several very good reasons. First, he has not been nominated yet, and he may never be nominated. It would be improper for a White House counsel to comment on a Supreme Court nomination that may never come to pass. As the president’s lawyer, it is also his job to find, screen, and promote judicial candidates. So commenting on his own hypothetical nomination would be doubly improper.
texasmonthly.com: You quote Gonzales on his strong opposition to judicial activism. Do you get the sense that he really is any less likely than most to let his personal politics influence his decisions on the Court?
SCG: I got the strong sense from speaking with a number of sources that he did not attempt to legislate from the bench while he was on the Texas Supreme Court. No one knows what he would do on the U.S. Supreme Court, of course. But if you take his work in Texas as a guide, he would likely pay close attention to both the letter of the law and to legal precedent in deciding cases. Politically speaking, he is a conservative and a Republican. But judicially speaking, he seems to be a moderate.
texasmonthly.com: You spent a good amount of time writing in Washington before you were at Texas Monthly. What do you like about writing about D.C. politics?
SCG: When I worked for Time magazine in Washington, I thought it was a wonderful, glamorous, fascinating, and also extremely limited job. It was glamorous interviewing senators or cabinet secretaries or having a private lunch with Alan Greenspan on the top floor of the Fed. But Washington journalism is also about access. In its simplest form, this means that if you write nice things about people, they give you all the access you want to the people in power. If you write negative things, they won’t even return your calls. Editors have little tolerance for reporters who cannot get to important sources on deadline. So you play the game, trying to bite the hand that feeds while still persuading the hand to keep feeding you. It’s a game that I got quickly tired of. But Washington is still an interesting place to be as a reporter, at least for a few years.
texasmonthly.com: How much do you keep your ear to the ground for Washington stories with a Texas connection, now that you’re so far away from the Capitol?
SCG: I am really not in a position to keep my ear to the ground in Washington. What I do is put my ear to the ground here in Texas and listen very, very hard.