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Positioned for a Call to Justice

Graduation Was a Triumph

Before he is even asked, Gonzales declares in an interview that he has no Supreme Court aspirations. He is a Beltway novice, but he's catching on quickly. "I am not a candidate for the Supreme Court," he states emphatically. "I don't intend to be a candidate."

Of course, he is already. Many believe that George W. Bush uprooted this father of three from Austin and brought him to Washington so that the party's right flank -- including the well-known conservative lawyers in Gonzales' own office -- could look him over. It is also assumed in legal and political circles that Bush wants to appoint the first Hispanic to the high court, and that he likes and trusts Gonzales, a Mexican American.

White House counsel Al Gonzales has been suggested as a potential Supreme Court justice. (Lucian Perkins - The Washington Post)

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The president has clearly enjoyed publicly telling and retelling Gonzales' personal story of triumph over adversity, as he has promoted Gonzales' career from Texas to Washington.

Alberto Gonzales was born in San Antonio in 1955 and raised in Houston, the second of eight children living in a two-bedroom house. There was no hot running water and no telephone for most of his childhood.

Gonzales views his success as part serendipity, part hard work, and part recognizing opportunity. One thing is certain: Little came easy for him in the beginning.

His parents had met as young migrant farm workers in Texas. Maria was a homemaker with a sixth-grade education; Pablo was a construction worker who only finished second grade. He provided for his family but he was an alcoholic.

The Gonzaleses, Roman Catholics, were strict and kept their brood on a short leash. When playing in the neighborhood, they had to report back home every 30 minutes. "I always told them to respect their elders and their teachers, to tell the truth and to look out for each other," says Maria Gonzales.

His neighborhood and his school -- Douglas MacArthur High School in north Houston -- were largely blue-collar and racially mixed. For that reason, Gonzales says, he doesn't recall experiencing "any expressed bias." (He admits that his Caucasian high school sweetheart's parents were not keen on the relationship.)

"I do have memories in Texas -- you have to take state history, and a large part of the course is Mexico and the Battle of the Alamo," he says. "And I remember in class fidgeting very uncomfortably with talk about how Mexico had plotted against Davy Crockett. It made me very uncomfortable."

High school classmates and former teachers remember Gonzales as a popular athlete -- he played varsity football and baseball -- and a conscientious student who was in the National Honor Society. Gonzales worked at Rice University games on weekends as a soda vendor for pocket money and dreamed of one day attending the private college. But while many of his friends went on to college after graduation, Gonzales enlisted in the Air Force.

He says neither his parents nor the school ever suggested college to him, and he never took standardized college entrance tests in high school. "It was considered a victory just to get me graduated because my parents had not graduated from high school," he says. "All I remember is how much I enjoyed school and really feeling without much direction when I graduated . . . and not knowing what to do."

The Air Force ended up being the next best thing to college. Stationed at Fort Yukon, Alaska, he met a couple of graduates from the Air Force Academy who encouraged him to apply to the school in Colorado Springs. The Air Force flew him from Fort Yukon to an old gym at a base in Fairbanks to take his physical, and he recalls taking the ACT college entrance test with only a proctor in the room.

Gonzales started at the academy in 1975. It was in Colorado that he met his first wife, Diane Clemens, who was attending a neighboring college. Within two years, he was homesick for Houston and he had decided that he wanted to be a lawyer. He transferred to Rice, graduating with a degree in political science in 1979 -- the only one of the eight Gonzales children who made it to college.

Gonzales seems uncomfortable talking about his brothers and sisters, because, says someone close to him, he doesn't want to flaunt his high-profile success. He is the only one of the seven living siblings who left Houston, and the only one who isn't able to go to his mother's home (Pablo Gonzales died on the job in 1982, when he fell from a rice silo) for every holiday.

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