Alberto Gonzales: Wheels of Justice

By Laura Blumenfeld
Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The attorney general's motorcade rolled out of the Justice Department, black glass and armored metal, flashing red and blue lights, and giant shiny grills that roared with importance.

Inside, a man sat wondering about his 10-year-old son. It was hard to explain his job to him.

"Gabriel's always asking me, 'Dad, what in the world do you do?' " said Alberto Gonzales, looking out through the smoked glass. As attorney general in a time of war, he has had to sift through some of the most difficult constitutional issues -- spying, wiretapping, interrogation and torture. "I said, 'Well, I go to a lot of meetings.' "

Gabriel, the youngest of three boys, is asleep when Gonzales leaves home at 5:45 a.m. for his first meeting, an FBI update on terrorist threats. If the intelligence warrants, Gonzales reports to the White House.

On a recent afternoon though, the attorney general reported to Spring Hill Elementary School. Gabriel's teacher had asked Gonzales to talk about the law.

"Okay, I've got to get my game face on to speak to these fifth-graders," Gonzales said as his driver pulled up to the McLean school. He had testified for senators and introduced the president. But fifth-graders? He put his hand over his mouth: "I've got to find something they're interested in."

Gonzales's wife, Rebecca, stood at the door, videotaping his arrival. Gabriel, in a rugby shirt and braces, smiled and waved, stiffened by the cringe and thrill of having a parent speak at school. Then his father told the assembled students, "I'm the top cop in the country," and Gabriel relaxed. "I go after the bad guys," Gonzales said.

After Gonzales's speech, Gabriel said he still wasn't sure what his father did. He could see, though, that his friends thought it was cool. They raised their hands: "What's your favorite 'Star Wars' episode?" "Is Dick Cheney in big trouble?" "What's your favorite car?"

"I ride in a Chevy Suburban with an FBI detail. Their job is to protect me," Gonzales said. "When I go bike riding, they ride with me."

The children laughed. The idea of a dad on a bike, trailed by gun-toting agents, sounded like a joke.

But a few days later, on a bright Sunday afternoon, when Gonzales left Justice to ride his bike, a SWAT team agent drove ahead to the Mount Vernon Trail in Alexandria, looking taut and serious.

As Gonzales's motorcade approached, his driver radioed in a coded transmission: "We're 30 seconds out."

"Copy. Standing by, 1099," said the agent at the trail, who had set up a 24-speed Fuji FBI bike for the attorney general.

Gonzales got out of the black SUV, wearing running shoes, a T-shirt and black biking shorts that hung loose around his bulging quads. He has a sweet face, mild eyes and a buddy's smile. His legs, though, were something else. They looked rooted and unmovable, like redwood trunks.

"Okay, let's go," Gonzales said, and the agents leapt onto their bikes, their handcuffs swinging, their .45-caliber pistols ready with the hammers back. The longer Gonzales stood still, the more vulnerable a target he became. They don't let him stay motionless for more than two minutes.

How does Gonzales explain this to his 10-year-old son? He started pedaling, blurring past a man with a boy on a tricycle. It was easier to understand what his own father had done. Gonzales used to get up at 6 a.m. to eat tortillas and eggs with him, before his father left for the construction site. His parents, Mexican American migrant workers, had met while picking cotton. They raised eight children in a two-bedroom home in Humble, Tex., that had no phone or hot water. Gonzales had watched his father build their house, looked up at him hammering shingles to the roof.

"Which way? Can you read that sign?" Gonzales asked, stopping his bicycle at a fork. At 50, his eyes were going. His elbow and knees were, too; he gave up racquetball last summer for biking. The wheels turn, his iPod plays Don Henley, and he finds a rhythm. Sometimes he sings along: "I never will forget those nights. I wonder if it was a dream. Remember how you made me crazy? Remember how I made you scream?" Other times, he practices answers for congressional hearings.

Biking is the one time when he is relatively alone. FBI agents pedal in front and in back, carrying an electronic defibrillator, a tourniquet and a Global Positioning System device. Black Suburbans idle at every intersection. "I try to pretend they're not there," Gonzales said, rolling by. The joggers, Rollerbladers and picnickers along the Potomac River don't seem to notice. One time, while biking, he asked some tourists if they wanted a picture with the attorney general: "They looked at me like -- Who are you? "

His critics might answer: A yes man to a president illegally expanding his powers. But as Gonzales pumped up a hill, he said he wasn't troubled by critics. He was troubled by terrorists. "I stay up at night," he said, rounding a corner near the water. "I read the reports. Sometimes I ask myself, when will it end?"

The river rippled away from the shore. "The answer is -- it probably never will."

He biked for 13 miles, past boats, over wood-slatted bridges and through the pine-scented shadows. In Mount Vernon, an agent jumped from a Suburban and loaded the attorney general's bike. Driving north on the parkway, with the Washington Monument rising in the windshield, Gonzales nudged two black bags with his sneaker: "This is my gear. This is my work."

His work bag held a fat leather briefing book. He opened it to a chapter heading: "WAR ON TERROR." How does he explain this to his son? For a while, Gabriel was waking up, crying from nightmares. It was after 9/11. He dreamed someone was trying to kill his father. Gonzales's own father had died on the job; he fell from a grain silo at a rice mill. But when Gonzales held Gabriel that night, he told him that everything would be okay. Gonzales told him, "I'm going to do everything I can to make sure you're safe."

Because that is a father's job.

Off Camera is a monthly column featuring Washington's top decision makers in their in their off hours -- outside the office and inside their lives.


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