Former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, the first Hispanic to hold that office, came to LALSA’s La Gran Fiesta conference last April to talk about his heritage and unlikely rise to the country’s chief enforcement officer, but he spent much of the time defending the Bush administration’s anti-terrorism efforts.
Gonzalez, the keynote speaker, acknowledged that some people were unhappy with the president’s decisions to protect national security, but he maintained that 9/11 and the continuing threat of attacks from Al-Qaeda justified the controversial treatment of suspected terrorists.
Nonetheless, Gonzalez admitted that the federal government should have been more forthright about its surveillance activities. But, he said, the severity of the attacks made the government “very skittish about talking too much,” and this reticence “allowed American citizens to simply imagine the worst.”
During his address, Gonzalez traced his path to the White House. The son of Mexican migrant workers, the Texan dreamed of attending Rice University, where he worked the concessions at football games. But the family could not afford to send him. Instead, he enrolled in the Air Force Academy and then went to Harvard Law School.
After earning his J.D., and making partner at a national law firm, Gonzalez turned to community service. Gov. Bush noticed his work and appointed him general counsel. After serving as Texas Secretary of State and on the state Supreme Court, Gonzalez moved with Bush to the White House as general counsel.
In that role, he advised the president on judicial appointments. Gonzalez said he believes good judges leave policy-making to elected representatives. This way, if Americans disagree with enacted laws, they can vote their congressional representatives out of office, he said. Judges shouldn’t use the Constitution to address every legal issue they encounter, Gonzalez said, because it only “protects a limited list of very sacred rights.”
The 9/11 attacks shifted Gonzalez’ focus from judiciary appointments to adopting a legal framework for the war on terror. Gonzalez said his biggest challenge was to define the limits of executive power in wartime.
Despite critics, Gonzalez said the administration’s actions have left the country safer, but not in the clear. Another attempted attack is inevitable, he said, because terrorists are persistent, patient and willing to make sacrifices.
As for how his six-year tenure as general counsel and attorney general will be remembered, Gonzalez remained convinced that he and the Bush administration will be vindicated.
“We know that the first drafts of history are often incomplete, inaccurate and they are eventually discarded,” said Gonzalez. “I take comfort in the fact that I’ve always worked hard as my father did, stayed true to my values by doing my best, and having stepped into the arena, I’ve served my country.”