James Mann, a resident fellow at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, is the author of “Rise of the Vulcans” and “George W. Bush,” a volume for the American Presidents series.
It is no small irony that the new memoir by Alberto Gonzales, formerly President George W. Bush’s attorney general, has come out in the current election season.
It does not seem that he or his publishers planned for this coincidence. The press release for the book instead links the timing to the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, emphasizing that Gonzales was a participant in the Bush administration’s decisions about what to do afterward. (More about that later.)
Yet Gonzales’s book and his life story serve as a reminder of how recently the Republican Party — or at least some of its leaders — seemed to be moving toward more inclusive policies, and was more tolerant of diversity, than it is now in the age of Donald Trump.
Gonzales’s roots were in impoverished communities in northern Mexico. Three of his four grandparents were born there. “They crossed the border into the United States — possibly legally, though probably not, at times, in search of a better life,” Gonzales writes. As a young man, Gonzales rose from a brief stint in the Air Force to Rice University, Harvard Law School and a partnership in a leading Texas law firm.
When Bush became governor of Texas, he brought Gonzales onto his team, and six years later, Gonzales moved with Bush from Austin into the White House. As a candidate for governor and president, Bush tried, with considerable success, to win more support from Latinos at the polls than Republicans had previously obtained.
Gonzales recalls proudly how Bush spoke of the value of immigration. “Fearful people build walls; confident people tear them down,” Bush declared in a speech in 2001. He could not have imagined then, nor could Gonzales have known as he was writing his book, how those words would stand as a rebuke to the Republican presidential candidate of 2016, who has built his entire candidacy around a proposal for a wall.
Gonzales’s experience in Washington turned out to be, in the end, not a happy one. Serving as Bush’s White House counsel and then as attorney general, he played a willing, active role in many of the most controversial decisions of the administration. Among them were massive new electronic surveillance, the establishment of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and the use of techniques that the Bush administration chose to call not “torture” (a word to which it gave an extremely limited, legalistic definition) but “enhanced interrogation.”
In one of the most notorious episodes of the era, Gonzales was one of two Bush administration officials who paid a nighttime visit to the hospital bed of the ailing Attorney General John Ashcroft at George Washington University Hospital in a hurried, unsuccessful attempt to persuade him to sign documents authorizing electronic surveillance that the Justice Department’s own lawyers had decided was unconstitutional. Ashcroft refused.
Much of Gonzales’s book is devoted to a detailed account of the leading Bush-era events and policies. The tone is often defensive and sometimes bitter. In Gonzales’s pejorative descriptions, critics “squawked” or “howled,” and lawyers who chose to oppose the Bush policies were merely “ambitious.”
The arguments Gonzales makes on behalf of the Bush programs are ones that have been made countless times before. He repeatedly returns to the claim that the interrogation and detention policies saved lives and prevented attacks, never acknowledging that this assertion has been challenged, most notably by a Senate Intelligence Committee report in 2014.
Despite these defects, the book will have considerable value for historians — not because of Gonzales’s arguments or insights, but simply because of what he heard, witnessed and then set down in his narrative. As Bush’s counsel, Gonzales sat in on the National Security Council meetings leading up to the war in Iraq. There is more specificity in his book than in most of the other memoirs by Bush administration officials. Apparently quoting directly from the minutes of council meetings, he records the administration’s debates through 2002 and 2003 on issues such as the rationale for the war and the expectations for what would happen afterward.
One frequent criticism of the Bush administration is that its officials went to war without thinking things through. The impression one gets from Gonzales’s account is that they did weigh issues, week after week — but ultimately acted on the basis of fallacious assumptions, faulty intelligence and false hopes. “We have to win quickly, or that will be the end of this administration,” Bush told Gonzales in one Oval Office meeting.
Gonzales’s portrait of Bush is almost worshipful. And yet his account is at times unflattering to the former president, even if unintentionally so. On the subject of treatment of prisoners, for example, Gonzales’s book makes clear that Bush was regularly kept up to date on what was being done, up to and including the use of waterboarding.
One of the few administration officials Gonzales singles out for criticism is James Comey, who served as deputy attorney general for Bush and is now the FBI director. In 2004, Comey supported the Justice Department lawyers who argued that a part of the Bush administration’s electronic surveillance program was illegal, and it was Comey who rushed to Ashcroft’s bedside urging him to turn down Gonzales’s urgent nighttime search for a signature of approval.
Gonzales belittles Comey as having the limited mentality of a prosecutor. “For some prosecutors, there is no gray area, only black and white,” he writes. It is a telling comment: When it came to interpreting what the law said and what the president was authorized to do, Gonzales saw only permissive shades of gray. He was flexible — to a fault. Eventually, as he acknowledges, it cost him. He continued to enjoy a close personal relationship with Bush, who appointed him attorney general at the start of his second term, but had ever less support in Congress and elsewhere.
When Gonzales arrived in Washington, he harbored hopes of being appointed to the Supreme Court, where he would have become the first justice of Hispanic descent. Indeed, Gonzales’s ambitions for a court appointment are a leitmotif in the book, a subject that he thought about and that the press speculated about during the administration’s early years.
But whatever chances he may have had gradually faded. In July 2005, after Justice Sandra Day O’Connor resigned, Bush pulled Gonzales aside after a larger White House meeting to discuss possible nominees and told him, “I’m not going to put you on the court.” Gonzales says the news was “bittersweet,” no doubt an understatement.
His problems continued to mount. Congress investigated his personal role in the firing of U.S attorneys around the nation. He felt that he had been “abandoned by everyone except the president.” But on Aug. 24, 2007, Bush asked for his resignation.
Gonzales went back to Texas, disillusioned by “the treachery of Washington politics and the subtle prejudices against outsiders.” For a long time, he couldn’t find any job at all and had to leave his home town of Houston. Finally, he landed a position as dean of Belmont University College of Law in Nashville.
Gonzales’s dream of a Hispanic justice on the Supreme Court was ultimately realized — not by himself but by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, appointed by President Obama in 2009. Gonzales, it turned out, was the wrong person in the wrong political party.
By Alberto R. Gonzales
Thomas Nelson. 526 pp. $26.99