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A Trusted Lawyer and Friend to the President

Times Staff Writers

There are two oft-heard Texas stories about Alberto R. Gonzales, whom President Bush introduced Wednesday as his choice for attorney general.

One is inspirational, about the son of migrant workers who used education and determination to rise from near poverty to become counsel to the governor of Texas and then to the president of the United States.

The other is more practical, about the lawyer-as-fixer who cleverly shielded his boss from legal and political trouble over an arrest for drunk driving.

Both are revealing about the presidential pal selected to lead the Justice Department during Bush’s second term.

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The president’s choice was applauded by liberals and conservatives, because the soft-spoken Gonzales is seen as a less polarizing figure than outgoing Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft.

Unlike Ashcroft, Gonzales is a trusted friend of the president who can be counted on to put the interests of the White House first.

“My confidence in Al was high to begin with. It has only grown with time,” Bush said in introducing Gonzales as his nominee.

Gonzales, 49, grew up in north Houston in a two-bedroom house that his father built, but it lacked hot water and a telephone.

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His parents, Pablo and Maria, both from Mexican immigrant families, never finished elementary school and met when they were field workers.

“I never asked friends over,” Gonzales recalled this year. “I was embarrassed that 10 of us lived in the cramped space.”

By age 12, he had landed his first job: selling sodas at the Rice University stadium during Saturday football games.

Afterward, as he watched the students disperse, Gonzales would daydream about attending one of the nation’s top universities.

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“I had no realistic comprehension about a Rice education,” Gonzales said. “But I understood even then, as I cheered for the mighty Owls, that I wanted to go to school there.”

Through perseverance and talent, and a brief detour to Alaska with the Air Force, Gonzales earned his Rice degree -- and then some.

After receiving a law degree from Harvard University, he became a partner in a prestigious Houston firm before entering public life. He served as Texas secretary of state, a justice on the state Supreme Court and senior advisor to then-Gov. Bush.

In 1996, midway through his first term as governor, Bush was a rising star in Republican circles. The son of a former president, he was seen as having a clear shot at the White House in 2000 if his tenure in Texas proved to be a success.

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That fall, the governor was called to serve on a jury in Austin in a trial of an accused drunk driver. “I’m just an average guy showing up for jury duty,” Bush told reporters when he arrived at the courthouse.

But while Bush stood talking in the hallways, his counsel, Gonzales, was meeting behind closed doors with the judge and the defense lawyer, David Wahlberg. Gonzales argued that because the governor had the power to pardon a defendant, it would be inappropriate to have him also decide his guilt or innocence.

While the contention seemed novel, the defense lawyer agreed to dismiss the governor as a potential juror. Bush thus avoided the need to answer questions under oath about whether he had ever been arrested for drunk driving.

Four years later, when it was revealed that Bush had once been arrested for drunk driving, Wahlberg understood why Gonzales had insisted on excusing the governor from jury duty.

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“He snookered all of us,” Wahlberg later told Texas Monthly.

For Texas lawyers, the courthouse story illustrated why the low-key, publicity-shy Gonzales was an ideal choice as counsel to the governor, counsel to the president and U.S. attorney general. His first interest was in protecting Bush, they said.

Many presidents have chosen loyal friends as attorney general.

President Kennedy selected his brother Robert, and later said it was the best decision he made in forming his Cabinet.

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President Reagan chose his Los Angeles lawyer, William French Smith, as attorney general during his first term, and his Sacramento friend and ally Edwin Meese III for his second term. When the Iran-Contra scandal was uncovered in 1986, Meese moved effectively to contain the damage.

By contrast, in his second term, President Nixon faced the growing Watergate scandal with an attorney general who was neither a friend nor an ally. Elliot L. Richardson, a highly regarded Massachusetts Republican, refused Nixon’s order to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox over the issue of the White House tapes, and the subsequent uproar led to the first calls for Nixon’s impeachment.

President Clinton also did not choose a friend or loyalist to lead the Justice Department.

He named Janet Reno, a Miami prosecutor, as his attorney general, and the White House watched in dismay as she approved the appointment of half a dozen independent counsels to investigate alleged wrongdoing in the Clinton administration.

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Bush appeared to be taking no such risk in selecting Gonzales.

“This has been a day of conflicting emotions for me -- obviously, great humility and gratitude, and also some sadness, that, if confirmed, I will no longer drive to work every day to the White House, nor interact as closely with this remarkable White House staff,” Gonzales said.

“But I do look forward ... to continuing to work with my friends and colleagues in the White House in a different capacity on behalf of our president,” he said.

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(Begin Text of Infobox)

Alberto R. Gonzales

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Age: 49; born Aug. 4, 1955, in San Antonio.

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Education: Attended U.S. Air Force Academy; bachelor’s degree in political science from Rice University, 1979; law degree from Harvard University, 1982.

Experience: White House counsel (2001-present); Texas Supreme Court justice (1999-2000); Texas secretary of state (1997-1999); Texas governor’s general counsel (1995-1997); corporate attorney with Houston law firm Vinson & Elkins (1982-1995).

Family: Wife, Rebecca, and three sons.

Nicknames: Called “the Judge” by White House colleagues. Known as Al to friends.

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Source: Associated Press

Los Angeles Times


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