Former U.S. Attorney General talks law, faith, career

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Former United States Attorney General Alberto Gonzales spent Thursday morning visiting with a select group of students on the campus of Sam Houston State University about his time in Washington D.C.

The event was planned under the direction of Lieutenant Colonel David Yebra, director of Special Programs in the SHSU Leadership Academy. The group of students was composed of select students from various colleges across campus in addition to members of the Center for Law, Engagement and Politics.

Gonzales grew up from humble beginnings in Humble in a family of 10. His father was a construction worker with a second grade education, and his mother was a stay-at-home mom with a sixth grade education. Gonzales stated that he grew up in very poor conditions as his 10-person family shared a three-bedroom house, which had no running hot water and did not have a telephone until Gonzales was a junior in high school.

“It doesn’t matter your skin color, it doesn’t matter your last name, it doesn’t matter your zip code, where you come from—anything is still possible in this country if you apply yourself, if you work hard and get an education,” Gonzales said. “We live in a country where dreams still do come true, and they certainly did for me.”

Gonzales attended the United States Air Force Academy and soon after, graduated from Rice University with a Bachelor’s degree in political science. He then graduated from Harvard Law School and became the first hispanic partner with Houston law firm Vinson and Elkins. He worked at the firm for 12 years until Texas Governor George W. Bush asked Gonzales to become his general counsel in 1994.

“At some point, find that career, find that job that gives you passion,” Gonzales said. “Find something that brings you joy. Find something that really makes you happy where you feel like you can make a difference. I think that all of us are given certain gifts by God, certain talents, so find what you can do to contribute back to society.”

Governor Bush then appointed Gonzales to Secretary of State of Texas in 1997 and then to the Texas Supreme Court in 1999. Gonzales only stayed on the supreme court for two years. However, after Bush won the presidential election in 2000, he asked Gonzales to become his White House Council and the 80th Attorney General—the first lawyer in the history of the country to hold both positions to date.

“It’s pretty heavy duty when you work at The White House, but I never missed a day of work,” Gonzales said. “It was always so exciting, so much fun and if you ever have the opportunity, I would recommend it tremendously. To be able to work in the White House, to be an American citizen and be able to have that privilege—it is so special.”

Throughout Gonzales’ career he earned several awards including the CIA’s Director’s Award, the Office of Secretary Defense’s medal for “Exceptional Service” and was named one of Time Magazine’s “25 Most Influential Hispanics in America.”

One of the most memorable times Gonzales said he had while working within the White House happened Sept. 11, 2001. Gonzales said he was giving a speech that morning and took off out of the same airport that America 77—the same plane which was hijacked and crashed into the Pentagon—took off from that same morning just an hour after Gonzales’ departure. Gonzales said he was in the terminal at the same time as the hijackers and often wonders if their paths crossed that morning.

When Gonzales was able to return to Washington D.C. that afternoon, he spent the majority of the day running between offices and discussing legalities of the situation with other members of the cabinet. At about 7 p.m. that day, the White House received word that the president was returning home. Gonzales was there to greet him.

“The very first thing I thought of when Bush walked off of that helicopter was this is why I went to law school, this is why I became a lawyer—to advise this wartime president,” Gonzales said. “As he approached me, I knew we would be okay as a country because he was determined, he was angry and as soon as I saw his face, I knew we’d be fine.”

For Gonzales, that moment was a turning point not only for the United States but also for the entire Hispanic population.

“In days gone by, there would not have been someone who looked like me standing there waiting for the president,” Gonzales said. “In days gone by in this country, there would not have been someone who looked like me to advise the president on all the issues that arose that day. From my perspective, I think [being Hispanic] has helped me [and] hurt me, and I’d like to think that over the course of my life it all kind of evens out. What’s really important is what I do with the opportunities I’m given.”

During his tenure in public service, Gonzales advised President Bush through two wars and roughly 50 state and federal executions.

“Being attorney general is hard,” Gonzales said. “It’s probably the most difficult position to have on the Cabinet because you’re going to be involved in the most controversial issues. There are always winners and losers in the decisions you make as attorney general. I think it requires a very thick skin. Go in with your eyes open and your armor on.”

Gonzales attributes his success, his ability to cope with stressful decisions and the future of the country to faith in a higher power.

“I’ve been involved in some pretty big decisions where lives were in the ballots so it helps to have faith in a higher power when you’re making those kinds of decisions that you’re doing the right thing,” Gonzales said. “For me, it was important. I’m not saying it’s absolutely necessary, but I just think the country is better off to have someone who believes in the power of prayer in the Oval Office. It’s not a requirement of The Constitution, I get that, but I know how hard that job is—I’ve seen it. I just think that’s important.”

Gonzales currently resides as the Dean of the Belmont University College of Law, where his two youngest sons attend. He said one of the things he misses most about no longer working in the White House is not getting to see President Bush on a daily basis. However, the two still keep in touch and visit whenever the other is in town.

“Dream big dreams,” Gonzales said. “You never know what’s going to happen, you never know what’s possible and you never know when the next George W. Bush is going to come along and give you a once in a lifetime opportunity—something spectacular.”

After all of his success, Gonzales said that if at the end of his life, his wife and children do not love and respect him, none of it will have meant anything.

“I’m positive about my life, I’m positive about America. Sure we have problems, but when I think about where I came from…this is a great country. I remain very optimistic about our country simply because of my own experiences. I know what is possible in America—I’ve lived it. My story is the American story. It is God’s grace as far as I’m concerned.”