One Saturday afternoon this May, Alberto R. Gonzales addressed the 2004 graduating class of Rice University and talked about growing up in an impoverished household on the north edge of Houston.
His parents, former migrant workers, had only eight years of schooling between them and barely spoke English. The family of 10 lived in a small two-bedroom house with no hot water and no telephone. There was no tradition of education in the family, only of working hard to scrape by.
Gonzales took his first job at 12 to help support the family, and as he carried trays of soft drinks in the upper deck of Rice Stadium on football Saturdays he aspired to a better life. "I would stare over the stadium walls and watch the Rice students stroll back to the colleges, and I wondered what it would be like to be one of you, a Rice student," Gonzales said.
He went on to be one of them and much more. "In many ways, Al embodies the American dream," says President Bush, who often talks about the real-life Horatio Alger aspects of Gonzales's life.
Today, Gonzales is Bush's nominee for attorney general, the nation's top law enforcement officer. He is the first Hispanic named to the post.
The journey reflects a life of extraordinary achievement for this child of migrants. Gonzales is a Rice alumnus; a graduate of Harvard Law School; a former partner in Houston's largest law firm, Vinson & Elkins; a top appointee in Bush's gubernatorial administration in Texas; and, for the past four years, the White House counsel to Bush.
Ahead are confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, scheduled to begin early next month, and Gonzales, 49, is likely to face tough questions regarding his role as White House counsel, particularly his memos that, critics believe, sanctioned the torture of terrorism suspects in Iraq and encouraged the detention of others at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, outside the jurisdiction of U.S. courts.
The attorney general's job would be Gonzales's fifth top-level assignment from Bush in a decade. As newly elected governor, Bush asked Gonzales to be his general counsel in 1995, and he subsequently appointed him to be Texas secretary of state and to the bench on the Texas Supreme Court. In 2001, Gonzales followed Bush to Washington as White House counsel.
Like many of the president's inner circle who went to Washington, Gonzales is known for his loyalty to Bush. As general counsel to the then-governor, Gonzales went so far as to get Bush out of jury duty on a drunken-driving case in Austin to prevent him from being forced to answer under oath whether he had ever been convicted of driving while intoxicated.
"Gonzales said they had concluded it would be improper for the governor to sit in a case where he might be later asked to consider a pardon," said David Wahlberg, the attorney for the defendant. "I remember thinking, 'This is bogus.' But it was one of those arguments that had just enough legal merit. . . . He made a professional kind of presentation; he's obviously a bright guy. But the end result was that he snookered us."
Bush's 1976 drunken-driving conviction eventually became public the week before the 2000 presidential election, and Gonzales has since acknowledged in published reports that he knew about the record and found a way to keep Bush from being forced to disclose it in the courtroom.
Above the Arctic Circle
For a young man from humble beginnings, Gonzales has come a long way. He lovingly talks about his mother's homemade meals of beans and tortillas and how his father and uncles, unable to afford help, built the family house. But now, he told Rice's Class of 2004 in his commencement speech, he gets to enjoy "steak dinners or rides on Air Force One or weekends at Camp David."
Even his siblings -- three of the eight never finished high school, and Gonzales is the only one who went to college -- can hardly believe his life today.
"It's an amazing story. It's almost unbelievable for us, his brothers and sisters," said Gonzales's brother Antonio, a SWAT officer with the Houston Police Department.